"The only issue is whether or not libel was committed."
What is press freedom? Like any other freedom, it is God-given and inherent to man.
Still, press freedom is not absolute. You may have the right to express your feelings, but the line is drawn against expressing what is on your mind and respecting the rights of others, like when you call somebody a crook or a thief. People also have to maintain their reputations.
Similarly, when journalists like me enjoy the freedom of the press to write what I believe to be right, I cannot denigrate the rights of others just because I enjoy the freedom of the press.
This is exactly why we have laws against libel and slander.
When I write my column in the opinion pages, I can still be sued for libel. In fact, I have committed libel many times, gone to court to defend myself and apologized at least four times for my recklessness.
The law defines libel. It should be a person, not a juridical entity, who is involved. The imputation must be criminal in nature to besmirch one’s reputation. Most importantly there should be malice. For example, if a journalist keeps on imputing a criminal act many times, then that could be taken to be malice.
Libel can also be committed by a journalist who repeats or reports the libelous statements of others. There are precedents to this.
But malice in the commission of libel is difficult to prove. It is for this reason that most of the libel suits thrown at journalists are dismissed by the courts.
This is also why in my nearly 70 years in journalism, I have never been convicted of libel.
To cite an example: When I was in Cotabato City and not yet a lawyer, working as co-editor of The Mindanao Cross, I received a letter from somebody accusing a village doctor of being a “quack doctor.” Without checking the facts I published the report and I was sued as a result. I was arrested and jailed overnight. Fortunately, the Oblates who ran the paper had a good friend, Don Paco Blanco, who bailed me out.
It was clearly my fault and I apologized to the doctor, who in turn accepted my apology.
If you don’t want to be sued for libel, don’t be a journalist.
I say all these as a background to the case of Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, and her researcher. They published the case of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, who supposedly used the car of businessman William Keng during the impeachment trial at the Senate.
The businessman denied the imputation years after the prescription-period for libel. The mistake of Rappler however was that it post-dated that story a couple of times, which made the story jurisdictional.
So did Ressa and her researcher commit libel or not?
Another question is whether the Duterte administration violated press freedom in having the Department of Justice, through the National Bureau of Investigation, find probable cause.
There are two issues here: Whether libel was indeed committed and whether the case against her was a violation of press freedom.
I believe that Rappler committed libel, having postdated the imputation of something that could malign the reputation of a person. Whether there was malice is something the NBI has to prove.
As for the violation of press freedom. I cannot see the connection with the libel case. As I said earlier, press freedom is not limitless.
I thus cannot understand why there are so many bleding hearts for Ressa. Even foreign personalities and governments claim that press freedom was violated. That’s a lot of BS!
Yes, I admit that because of the critical reportage of Rappler, especially on the bloody war on drugs, President Duterte was piqued. At one point, a Rappler reporter was barred from entering Malacañang grounds.
But there are so many other critics of the war on illegal drugs!
I think President Duterte is proceeding wrongly in the war on drugs. It is not a peace-and-order problem. It is a health issue.
As I have said so many times, Duterte may kill up to millions who are drug addicts users, but so long as there is demand, the problem will continue to be there even after his term.
But back to Ressa. She is trying to be a martyr of sorts. She claims that the Duterte administration is “weaponizing the law.” But the issue is plain—did she, or did she not, commit libel?
I may be accused of suddenly siding with the President, but it would not be true because I have been so critical of the Duterte administration so many times in the past.
If I did believe that freedom of the press is being violated in Ressa’s case, then I would be the first to declare support for her. But I do not.
Whether libel was committed is for the courts to decide. Let us look at all this objectively.