The freedom of speech and expression is one of the most valued rights. People have perpetually fought against their suppression. But just like all other rights, this is not absolute. There are limitations set by law in order to protect people from indiscriminate expressions of opinion that can taint honor, reputation, or character.

With the advent of the Digital Age, the boundaries of protected speech are being pushed and challenged. But certain classes of speech--like libel and slander--remain prohibited and even penalized with imprisonment.

The following are basic facts you should know about libel and slander. Click on a section to immediately get to that part. You may also just keep reading:

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1. WHAT IS LIBEL?

The Revised Penal Code defines libel as “the public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.” (Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines)


2. WHAT MAKES A STATEMENT LIBELOUS?

A statement becomes libelous when all the following elements are present:

a. There is a defamatory statement attributing to a person a crime, a vice or defect, whether real or imaginary, or any act, omission, status, or circumstance. Such a defamatory statement tends to cause dishonor, discredit, or contempt.

b. There is malice in the statement. The law expressly states that “every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown.” Hence, truth alone is not a defense in libel. It must likewise be proven that it was made with good intentions and not to injure the reputation of the subject of the defamatory statement.

c. The statement was made publicly. In libel, publication means the communication of the defamatory statement to a third person. Communication to at least one person already constitutes as “publication.”

d. The victim--a natural, juridical, or dead person--is identifiable. Even if he is not named, this element is satisfied if the victim can be identified by a third person or a stranger.

For example, in a case filed by Annabelle Rama and Eddie Gutierrez against Cristenelli “Cristy” Fermin, the latter was found guilty of libel. The Honorable Supreme Court ruled that there was “evident imputation of the crime of malversation (that the complainants converted for their personal use the money paid to them by fellow Filipinos in America in their business of distributing high-end cookware); of vices or defects for being fugitives from the law (that complainants and their family returned to the Philippines to evade prosecution in America); and of being a wastrel (that Annabelle Rama Gutierrez lost the earnings from their business through irresponsible gambling in casinos).

“The attribution was made publicly, considering that Gossip Tabloid had a nationwide circulation. The victims were identified and identifiable. More importantly, the article reeks of malice, as it tends to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of the complainants.” (Fermin vs. People of the Philippines, G.R. NO. 157643, March 28, 2008)


(Photo by NS Newsflash via Flickr Creative Commons)

3. WHAT IS PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION?

In privileged communications, malice is not presumed. This means that the complainant must prove that the statement was made will ill intentions. If it can’t be proven, there is no libel in the following communications deemed privileged:

a. A private communication made in the performance of any legal, moral, or social duty. An example is a letter-complaint against a government employee for his corrupt acts. This letter should be addressed to his superior or the appropriate office having interest or duty in the matter.

b. A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments, of any judicial, legislative, or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report, or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions. An example is a news article about a government official being charged for a crime. (Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code)


4. WHAT ARE THE MEANS OF COMMITTING LIBEL?

Libel can be committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means. (Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code)

While posting on the Internet and sending a text message are not expressly included in the present law, many believe that these are still means of committing libel. To avoid a gray area on the matter, lawmakers have filed a bill that, if passed, would explicitly penalize defamation through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of electronic media.


5. WHAT IS SLANDER?

Penalized by Article 358 of the Revised Penal Code, slander or oral defamation is libel committed by oral (spoken) means instead of in writing. The term oral defamation or slander, as now understood, has been defined as the speaking of base and defamatory words, which tend to prejudice another in his reputation, office, trade, business, or means of livelihood. (Villanueva vs. People, G.R. No. 160351 [2006])

On the other hand, slander by deed is libel committed not by words, but by means of an act, which tends to cause dishonor, discredit, or contempt upon another person. (Article 359 of the Revised Penal Code)

For example, in 2006, a councilor was found guilty of oral defamation for uttering the following slanderous statements directed at a lady vice-mayor: “You are pretending to be clean and honest, yet you are not clean and honest. You are corrupt; you are like a red apple, but inside you are worm-infested and extremely dirty.” He was likewise found guilty of slander by deed for his act of making a dirty finger. (Villanueva vs. People, G.R. No. 160351 [2006])

The most common examples of slander by deed are pushing and slapping someone or spitting on someone in order to cause shame or ridicule.

(Photo by kfergos via Flickr Creative Commons)


6. WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE THE SUBJECT OF DEFAMATION OR SLANDER?

a. Bear in mind that litigation can be risky, costly, and lengthy. Furthermore, a defamatory or slanderous statement communicated to one or a few people may become more publicly known with the lawsuit. If you can ignore the statement and go on with your life, then do not pursue litigation. It entails too much of your money, time, effort, and even emotion.

b. If you cannot go on with your life without ignoring the statement, try to find ways to correct the defamatory or slanderous statement other than litigation. Other means may include demanding for a retraction, a correction of the statement, or an apology.

For example, if the statement was published in a newspaper, contact the editor, inform the latter that the statement published was defamatory or slanderous, and demand that your response be published in order to correct the statement.

c. Compose your response when you are no longer raging with emotions. Present your response in a factual and rational manner. Avoid making defamatory or slanderous statements yourself as a way to retaliate against your offender.

d. Use litigation only as a last resort. When you cannot let go and move on by ignoring the defamatory statement, approach a lawyer who can help you prepare the complaint and evidences against your offender. A criminal case and/or a civil case for damages may be filed against the offender for the act of making defamatory statements.


7. WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF SOMEONE IS ACCUSING YOU OF LIBEL OR SLANDER?

If you are accused of making a libelous or slanderous statement in a letter-complaint, but no case has been filed against you, consider making a retraction, a correction, or an apology in order to avert any criminal and/or civil actions against you.

However, if a suit has already been filed against you, there is no other option but to consult a lawyer and discuss the ways to defend yourself from the charge.


8. WHAT TIPS CAN YOU FOLLOW TO STAY ON THE SAFE SIDE?

a. Know the law. When writing or uttering statements, be mindful of staying outside the legal parameters of libel and slander. The absence of one element does not make a statement libelous.

b. Know what makes a statement defamatory. It is defamatory when it tends to cause shame, disgrace, ruin of reputation, and/or make others despise another.

c. Be certain that your statement is truthful and that you have good intentions and a justifiable motive in making such a statement.

d. Although the law is still unclear on the matter of libel on the Internet and other forms of electronic media, stay on the safe side and do not send any negative statements that may be taken as defamatory by the subject of these statements via text message or posts on the Internet.



(Photo by Israel Papillon via sxc.hu)

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