Thursday, October 04, 2007

Re-think the libel decriminalization position

There are a practical reasons not to push for wholesale libel decriminlization.
Journalists pressing for indiscriminate decriminalization of libel do not reach first base, mainly because it naturally does not generate support from lawmakers.
Libel is a public official's bargaining chip.
That is why lawmakers are allergic to proposals to decrminalize libel.
And even assuming it passes both houses of congress, the body language of President Arroyo when it comes to libel decriminalization seems to be: "over my dead body."
She could likely veto it.
Journalists should instead re-package, and push to remove jail terms for defamation that involves the constitutionally valued political speech.
(I think there is a pending Senate bill on this already)
That would be less an irritant to the ears of our lawmakers.
Is there a difference? Of course there is.
A journalist's position, I submit, should be to remove the jail term for liel involving political speech, but to let it remain a criminal offense.
Is it not that by removing the jail term, it removes libel from the realm of criminal processes?
No. Aside from jail term, there is a penalty called the fine.
So if the jail term is removed, let the fine remain as a punishment, aside from of course the damages which the offended party may seek (which is civil in nature).
Is there any advantange to the journalist by advocating this?
There is. A lot, I think.
First, by letting libel remain a criminal offense (but with only the penalty of fine for libel convictions involving political speech), the proof required of the state to secure a conviction is "proof beyond reason able doubt."
If libel becomes civil, the plaintff needs only to prove what is called "preponderance of evidence", where the judge just weighs the evidence and see which evidence is "heavier".
But with "proof beyond reasonable doubt" as a requirement, the prosecution needs to establish more.
This goes to the benefit of the offender, the accused.
Another benefit if libel remains a criminal offense is that there is an added avenue to wage battle, and that is at the fiscal's level.
If libel were civil, it immediately goes before the judge.
So what's the advantage of having another level to battle one's case?
Remember, at the prosecutor's level, there may be no need of a lawyer.
So it becomes economical to the journalist.
What journalist organizations should do is organize a group of lawyers that will give legal advice to journalists entagled in the prosecutor's level.
From my experience, the discussions of libel in the prosecutor's level merely recurs.
What becomes different are the factual circumstances, but the prinicples are established.
So lawyers have a "de kahon" set-up which would come in handy in helping journalists draft and file their counter affidavits.
And if the journalist gets used to being sued for libel, I'm sure he would immerse into a certain comfort zone, such that drafting counter affdiavits would be a walk in the park, so to speak.
So at the prosecutor's level, there is no need to hire a lawyer, and the journalist has the chance of having the complaint against him dismissed, except of course if the complainant is the First Gentleman.
(Was there ever a libel complaint of the First Gentleman dismissed by a prosecutor, whose boss is the First Gentleman's wife?)
So from a procedural standpoint, there are advantages to let libel remain in the penal books.
Just minor changes needed.
So all these radical bandwagon movements for wholesale libel decrminalization were done without much thinking, I believe.

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