Sunday, October 01, 2006

Why is libel criminal?

I have encountered this question not a few times: Why is libel a criminal offense? In the first, place why is libel punishable? What is bad about libel?
Libel is bad because it unduly wrecks the honor of another person. It is a person's honor that is being protected by libel laws. That is why inherently, libel is bad and is punishable.
One cannot just call another a thief, a smuggler, son-of-a-bitch, adulterer, and other similar ill-attributes. If one does that to another, he will likely face legal consequences.
As a matter of fact, lawyers will say that libel is something that the constitution does not protect.
While there is freedom of speech under our constitution, it does not protect libelous speech, just like obscene speech is not protected.
But the question is, if libelous speech has to be punished under the law, why is it made criminal?
Under Philippine law, libel is punishable under the revised penal code. This means that one can go to jail if he is convicted of libel.
The jail term for one count of libel is between six months and one day to four years and two months. If one is convicted of several counts of libel, he may not be eligible for probation, and thus may serve jail time.
There is one journalist who has been slapped a jail sentence of more than thirty years for libel. It is now on appeal before the Supreme Court.
Historically, libel is a very serious offense against political authority.
For instance when kings and monarchs ruled, subjects or commoners cannot speak ill or bad things about the king otherwise, his toungue will be cut. That was if the libel speaker wasn't hanged.
History therefore, tells us that libel is an offense that is met with severe conseuqence by authority.
The belief is that a man's honor is his priceless treasure. He may be poor materially, but his honor is his his prized possession.
Honor was precious then. It is now.
If this is the case, then why not just require the person guilty of libel to compensate the person he defamed--intead of criminal punishment---anyway, it is the individual's honor that is being attacked?
The reason why libel is considered a criminal offense is because libel can lead a person to commit a "serious breach of the peace."
Libel, it is believed, can disturb the peace and tranquility of society. That is why libel has to be an offense not only against the person defamed, but to the state and society as well.
If you visit the slum areas, you hear one neighbor accuse another "put_ _ g-ina-mo!". You can expect a bolo-chasing scene. That is a classic libel-as-breach-of-the-peace scenario.
It is believed a person defamed or libeled may commit violence (in the olden times, it can lead to a duel) if there is no adequate punishment that society imposes upon the defamer.
This is the belief at common law.
Until now, this remains the belief, and remains an insitutional policy under our system because it is still in the revised penal code.
There are moves in congress, as strongly advocated by journalists, to "decriminlize" libel.
To decriminalize libel, means that the jail term for the guilty will be removed. Only civil, monetized damages will be the means to compensate the person defamed.
Actually, to decrminalize libel is to reject and overturn and age-old concept that libel can lead to a serious breach of the peace.
There are those who disagree with decriminalizing libel because this will only drive the defamed, many of whom are monied and influential people, to use other means of retribution, and would not be willing to go through a lengthy civil process that gives no assurance of vindication.
This is a real danger of decrimiminalizing libel. Even at this time when libel is still a criminal offense, many journalists are being murdered.
Will decriminalizing libel reduce the number of journslists murdered? Or will it just exarcerbate the situation?
Second, we must remember that the criminial libel law is not the exclusive concern of journalists.
Journalists are not the only persons accused of libel.
Libel covers broad spectrum which involves situations that do not involve the press.
There is libel involving private persons concerning matters of purely private concern (i.e. neighbors defaming each other with graphic invectives).
Should this be also included in the sweeping bandwagon for libel decriminalization?
Yet the only ones talking about decrminilization of libel are the journalists, creatinga flase impression that the crime of libel is their exclusive domain.
This is where Congress, the policy makers, come in.
Their duty, it should be remembered, is to maintain that critical balance between the interests of protecting private reputation viz-a-viz the need to promote freedom of speech.
Congress must look deeper into the subject of libel decriminlization.
It must look beyond the concern of journalists.
The fear is that a sweeping decriminalization of libel might create an imbalance between the need to protect private reputation and the need to protect constitutionally-guaranteed free speech.
With an imbalance, our society will revert, and is bound to suffer the conditions which precisely led to criminalizing libel: a breach of the peace.

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