I write better when I smoke. Don’t ask me to reduce it to a science.


So Ninez finally got bit back, eh?

My mom told me of those days when she used to be a newscaster for RPN. She got sacked because she once snickered, on-air, in reaction to the news she was reading about Imelda Marcos. Considering that that was during the time when Ferdinand was still lupus-riddled King, that was pretty ballsy of her.

And she hasn’t mellowed with time, either. The Tribune still stands out as the most outspoken – and most vociferous – critic of the government. Despite flagging sales, Ninez’s paper carries out its crusade daily. I don’t agree with her opinions 100% of the time, but she truly embodies the very idea of free speech.

Which makes me wonder about this conviction. I haven’t read it and so I can’t possibly comment on whether the decision was wrong or right. But I’ve got to say something about the shitstorm it’s stirring up.

First off, Ninez is being used as a poster-child by the de-criminalization nuts. What’s annoying about that is that they’re not even touching the merits of the case. They’re just up in arms because, first, a journalist was convicted for libel; and second, because that journalist happened to be the iconic Ninez.

Great respect to her and all that, but what does who she is have to do with the whole damned thing? Even outspoken critics of government can break the law, you know? And if they do, you can’t cut them a break just because they’re known critics. That would make the whole idea of law meaningless.

Second, de-criminalizing libel is the worst thing to do. Sure, it’ll grant some sort of protection to hard-hitting journalists and all that, but the salutary effect will be confined only to those cases that involve big name politicians. What about those who aren’t so big?

Imagine what would happen if some journalist decides he’s tired of seeing his neighbor John Doe. Out of spite, he cooks up a story – complete with shadowy witnesses who all maintain that they will reveal their identities at the right time – and starts demolishing John Doe’s rep by calling him a drug user. If libel were decriminalized, what would John Doe’s recourse be?

And that’s just assuming John Doe is a private individual. He’d be in deeper shit if he also happened to be a government official. According to the Supreme Court, government officials have to exercise a greater degree of acceptance of even the harshest criticism – they have to be like Caesar’s wife, the Court said; more virtuous that Caesar himself. And that injunction applies even when the subject of criticism is not work-related. So poor John Doe, who doesn’t even know what crack looks like suddenly has to just grin and bear it while his good name gets tore down. And all because journalists have to be free to criticize.

That’s a load of bull.

The irony is that these journalists who loudly and frequently assert that no one should be above the law and accountability are now angling for precisely that kind of impunity for themselves. How twisted is that.

Newton’s law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The law on libel is that equal and opposite force; it is the individual’s guarantee that he can push back and that he can’t be pushed around, even by someone who claims to be a journalist.


Filed under: law and order, ,

22 Responses

  1. J says:

    Your observations about the merits of the libel law might be true theoretically but I’m not sure they valid when applied to Philippine context.

    I do think that market forces are enough to check the powerful journalist. I mean even abusive journalists themselves are subject to scrutiny by their fellow journalists. This I think make sure John Doe won’t be harassed by an irresponsible journalist.

    On the other hand, an honest journalist is helpless when faced with a powerful person who has access to a powerful machinery. This proves to be the case for Olivarez, who was sentenced to a jail term despite a Supreme Court circular asking courts to give lighter punishments to libel convicts.

    I’m undecided on the issue of decriminalizing libel. But I get the feeling that imprisonment is not a commensurate punishment.

  2. rom says:

    j: the media are notoriously incapable – or worse, unwilling – to police themselves. just crack open any tabloid and feast your eyes on the cesspool of libelous ‘blind’ items there. All these ‘blind items’ would certainly fail the test of newsworthiness (hence they are published as snippets of gossips instead of as actual reportage), and while nearly all of them refrain from actually giving a name, they still describe the subject with enough particularity that there can be no doubt who she is.

    access to a public forum is a powerful tool, J. And those who have it cannot be made into a super class of people who are beyond the reach of the law.

    as for Ninez, last I heard, that Circular only said that lighter punishments would be preferred. How a judge rules is still left to his discretion. And unless it is shown that the Judge gravely abused that discretion, not even the Supreme Court can penalize him for it.

  3. cvj says:

    Rom, your points seem to be valid against the tabloids (Abante, Remate et. al.) making trivial blind items about the lives of celebrities, but are invalid when applied to the Tribune which have dared to expose high-level corruption. Any idea on how to unentangle the two issues?

  4. Jeg says:

    Can’t untangle them IMO without throwing the baby out with the disposable diaper. It’s really up to the judges to determine the penalty. Fortunately, it’s not up to just the RTC judge. There’s still the appeals court and the SC.

    The sentence does send a message though. It seems that malice is no longer a factor in libel cases. An article, even if substantiated by fact, can land you a stiff fine and jail term if someone powerful gets hurt. Just hurt, mind you. They dont even have to show proof of actual damages like lost revenue and clients getting the hell out. And that sucks. That shouldnt be happening but it is.

    For the record, Im against decriminalizing libel. However, on its face, the Ninez case isnt libel.

  5. J says:

    The thing with tabloid reports is that people are aware that it is often baseless. Most read it for entertainment. So the damage done to unnamed actresses isn’t as bad, hence I don’t think imprisonment would be a commensurate punishment. Heavy fines would suffice, simply because media usually go gaga over libel convictions that people would immediately know if a journalist is convicted of libel, and upon being informed of this the people would know that the accusations that journalist put forward against the victim are baseless. So I see no reason for that journalist to be imprisoned.

    This is because imprisonment could be a dire consequence for people who tell the truth.

    My point is, we have more to lose if we put stiff punishment for libel.

  6. rom says:

    cvj: there is no distinction between tabloids publications like the Tribune, because the law either applies to both, or to neither. As Jeg said, the law is there to lay down the rule and the punishment for breaking the rule. It is the Judge that decides in what measure to apply the punishment, i.e., either the minimum or the maximum allowable.

    So, if you’re going to look for someone to blame for Ninez, blame the Judge, not the law.

    J: people who believe that simply telling the truth – or telling it in the most scandalous and attention-grabbing way possible – will set you free are living in an imaginary world. sure, it’s the world we all long for, but that just isn’t reality. all of human society is premised on the understanding that the truth is easy to claim – and so we put up structures like the courts to ensure that someone who claims to have the truth has to prove it first before he is believed.

    That may suck, but that’s the … ehrm … truth.

  7. cvj says:

    So the key to determining what is true or not would be to convince or otherwise control the Judge.

  8. J says:

    Rom, but sometimes these structures gives the powerful who gets hurt by the truth the tools to intimidate a journalist even when that journalist is able to prove that what she claims is true.

    Which is better: a libelous journalist not going to jail but apologizing and paying fines or a truthful journalist going to jail for telling the truth?

    “So, if you’re going to look for someone to blame for Ninez, blame the Judge, not the law.”

    The judge employed an unreasonably stern punishment because the law allowed him to. So I guess the law shares the blame. 😀

  9. rom says:

    cvj: in the sense that the legal system always asks “what can you prove?” – yes. Of course, the legal system requires that we have faith in the judges – that they can be convinced but not controlled.

    j: ah, but remember, for every libelous journalist who apologizes, there is an innocent whose reputation is left in tatters. Is his right then, less important? A sacrifice on the altar of press freedom?

    As for the second part of your question, this is the reason why in the medical profession – and increasingly in the legal profession as well – there is such a thing as malpractice insurance. Getting someone angry and giving him ample reason to hold you accountable is an occupational hazard that lawyers, doctors, AND journalists must learn to live with. You’re not going to de-criminalize all the various acts that constitute professional malpractice, will you? So, libel shouldn’t be decriminalized either.

    Re: the judge and the law sharing the blame – Absolutely. But all is not lost for Ninez. She has a very sympathetic Supreme Court to run to.

  10. cvj says:

    I think the issue is precisely on the ability of the powerful to control the judges. Your blog entry simply assumes this away.

  11. rom says:

    cvj:i beg to differ. the issue of controlling judges has to be separate from the issue of decriminalizing libel – which is the topic of this post. if the two were not separate, then the argument can be made that we should decriminalize everything in the penal code because we can’t trust judges to maintain independence.

  12. J says:

    Rom: very few abuse the professional malpractice laws. A lot of powerful people abuse the libel law. That’s why libel law is fundamentally different from professional malpractice laws.

    The right of the victim of libel, of course, is not inferior. But when the journalist pay fine and apologizes, which is often reported by the media as is the case of Lolit Solis and Ninez Cacho-Olivarez, the victim’s reputation is restored in the eyes of the people.

    Given that, I get the impression that, again, imprisonment is not a commensurate punishment for libel.

  13. cvj says:

    Rom, the situation in which the powerful are able to sue the powerless for libel in order to suppress information is precisely what is happening right now. How can decriminalizing libel be a separate issue when that is precisely the context? Couldn’t you at least see the connection?

  14. rom says:

    j: ‘very few abuse the professional malpractice laws’ ,i>that you know of, my friend. And that’s because, unlike journalists, other professionals don’t go screaming bloody murder whenever someone accuses them of doing something wrong. Other pros don’t have a soap-box where they can stand and denounce everyone who disagrees with them – they don’t have newspaper columns, they don’t have talk-shows.

    An apology does not restore a reputation. It makes the victim feel vindicated, sure, but his reputation is never again pristine. It’s a good bet that someone, somewhere, will bring up the same slurs again and the victim is once again reduced to protesting his innocence.

    If imprisonment is deemed too harsh, then the judge is free not to impose it. That’s how the penal laws work.

    cvj: in my neighborhood, the rich and powerful abuse the road off-set rule to prevent less powerful neighbors from opening home-based sari-sari stores (to prevent competition) – maybe we should strike that ordinance from the books too.

    according to you, the rich and powerful abuse the rules of due process to frustrate the pursuit of truth – let’s get rid of due process too, while we’re at it.

    You say that we should decriminalize libel because it is being abused. if your argument is that the existence of a law (libel, for instance) makes it possible to abuse it (such as the powerful suing the allegedly powerless – and the media are not powerless by the way) and that we should therefore just get rid of the law, then I have to say that your conclusion is wrong.

    I say the solution is to amend the libel law to make it more difficult for corrupt judges to abuse it. Just because people abuse the libel laws does not make libel any less felonious.

  15. J says:

    “An apology does not restore a reputation. It makes the victim feel vindicated, sure, but his reputation is never again pristine. It’s a good bet that someone, somewhere, will bring up the same slurs again and the victim is once again reduced to protesting his innocence.”

    Same with imprisonment.

    “If imprisonment is deemed too harsh, then the judge is free not to impose it. That’s how the penal laws work.”

    But penal mechanisms don’t prevent the judge from imposing a punishment he knows to be too harsh.

    “I say the solution is to amend the libel law to make it more difficult for corrupt judges to abuse it.”

    Fair enough. To this, I agree.

  16. rom says:


    But penal mechanisms don’t prevent the judge from imposing a punishment he knows to be too harsh.

    That’s what the Supreme Court is there for, buddy.

  17. cvj says:

    I think we should explore outsourcing our Justice system to India.

  18. rom says:

    cvj:bwahahahaha! that’s the best idea I’ve heard in almost a lifetime!!! LETS!

  19. Jeg says:

    If there’s any justice at all, the verdict would be overturned on appeal. There was no libel. Just a whiny defendant who had all the means necessary to counter the allegations in the Tribune with its own version of the truth, but nevertheless chose to go whine to the courts. ‘Boo-hoo, big bad newspaper hurt my itty-bitty feelings.’

  20. […] A defense of libel involving imprisonment, is over at smoke: […]

  21. Bencard says:

    rom, i find most of your views on this subject in agreement with mine. i wish conviction for libel should carry with it a much stronger social and professional stigma, in addition to the penalties and/or apologies.

    public rejection or acceptance of a defamer, as a journalist, may not be legislated but the verdict of the audience as to his integrity and credibility needs no validation. abusive journalism is the seed of its own destruction.

  22. rom says:

    bencard: welcome to the smoking room! glad to have you around. 🙂

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