Sunday, September 17, 2006

Is the First Gentleman fair game or not?

First Gentleman Miguel Arroyo is merely exercising his right to file a libel case against journalists whom he believes have unjustly and unlawfully maligned what he believes is his good name and reputation.
After all, according to his son, the good congressman from Pampanga, "he deserves to be hurt."
Thus, laws in criminal libel are available for the First Gentleman to avail and seek redress.
What is disturbing though are the pronouncements of the Frist Gentleman's lawyer, Atty. Ruy Rondain on national television who pre-emptively proclaimed that his client is "not fair game."
This may sound inocuous, but from a legal standpoint, this is calculated to pre-emptively categorize the First Gentleman as as "private individual" in contrast to being a "public figure."
In defamation litigation, there is a whale of a difference between a private individual-complainant or plaintiff, and a public figure-complainant or plaintiff.
The private individual-complainant or plaintiff will meet a lesser burden in recovering damages or proving libel than the public-figure-complainant or plaintiff.
It is noted that the First Gentleman is seeking a uniform P10-million civil damages.
To be able to recover such damages, and to be able to attain a conviction, the First Gentleman's legal team is already advancing their argument that their client, the complainant, is a "private individual-complainant" or plaintiff, and not a public figure-complainant or plaintiff.
They sanitize this crucial issue in libel by describing the First Gentleman as one who is "not fair game."

The standards in defamation

Public official or public figure

Our Supreme Court has adopted the docthe trines in defamation that have been promulgated by United States Supreme Court.
Jurisprudence has adopted and applied the concept that public officials and public figures have to meet the "actual malice standard" in order to recover damages, or to be able to prove criminal libel beyond reasonable doubt.
These have been decided by the ruling cases of New York Times v Sullivan, Curtis Publishing v. Butts, Garrison v Louisiana (U.S. Supreme Court Cases); and the cases,. among others of Rodolfo Vasquez v Court of Appeals, Arturo Borjal Jr. v Court of Appeals, Ciriaco Boy Guinguing v Court of Appeals, Salvador Flor v Court of Appeals, (Phlippine Supreme Court cases)

Just to recall, the actual malice standard prohibits a public official or public figure from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to official conduct unless such statements were made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether or not it was false.

Private individual
But in the matter of private invidividual-complainants or plaintiffs, the standard to be applied and burden of proof is much less than the where the complaint or plaintiff is a public official or public figure.
In the United States, case law mandates that those plainitffs who are neither public officials or public officials are not required to meet the actual malice standard in order to recover damages.
In the case of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc v Mauruice Hepps, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a private individual who files a suit against a newspaper on a matter of public concern need only to prove falsity or fault, in order to recover damages.

Crucial Issue
It will therefore be a crucial issue in libel litigation instigated by the First Gentleman, as to whether or not he is to be categorized as a public figure or a privatge individual.

What are the standards
The First Gentleman or his lawyers is therefore, beating his opponents to the draw by pre-emtively positioning the complainant as a private individual.

But is he really a private individual-complainant, or a public figure-complainant, so as to apply the actual malice standard? Is he fair game or not?

The answer to this issue can be culled from the recent decisions of our Supreme Court because it has made definite classifications as to the kind of plainitiffs who initiate libel cases.

In the instructive decision of Arturo Borjal v Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court categorized the planiitff in a suit for (civil) libel, Francisco Wenceslao as a public figure and therefore was tasked to prove actual malice. The plaintiff there was the executive director of the First National Conference on Land Transport, an entity created to solve the massive transport problem in Metro Manila during the Cory administration. In that case, the Supreme Court considered him to be a public figure, and not a private individual, and thus must meet the actual malice standard.

In the recent case of Ciriaco Guinguing v Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court categorized the complainant therein, Mr. Choy Torralba, as a public figure and must also be tasked to prove actual malice before a libel conviciton can be pronounced.
In that case, the complainant was a Cebu broadcaster, and businessman. The Supreme Court said this classifies the complainant as a public figure.

What about the First Gentleman?

If an executive director of a relatively not very well known entity, or a media broadcaster can be classified as a public figure in matters of defamation litigation, how much more the First Gentleman, who is defintely more than just the President's personal photographer.

The First Gentleman exactly is not one who has hidden behind the curtains of public discussion and debate. He has been the prime mover in public activities such as the Southeast Asian Games. He has been at the forefront in working for the welfare of overseas Filipinos. And not long ago, he literally thrust himself into the arena of public recognition by climbing the boxing ring when Manny Pacquaio clobbered the terrible Mexican Erik Morales in Las Vegas, where the First Gentleman received a not-so-friendly reaction from Filipinos watching the world over.
A public figure in defamation litigation has been described as one who thrusts himself into the arena of public discussion and debate. He is one who has easy access to media to be able to inject his ideas and to counter criticisms.
The first Gentleman has been seen in practically all major media outlets filing cases of libel. He has been intereviewed by media where he countered the attacks against him by his adversaries.

And now his legal team says he is not fair game?

They must be playing games.

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