The Supreme Court handed down a libel decision affirming the conviction of showbusiness t.v. talk show host Cristinelli Salazar Fermin (Tita Cristy). The decision is quite significant for purposes of our discussion on the develoments of libel law in the country. The decision was promulgated last March 28, 2008. First, the Supreme Court invoked its Administrative Circular No. 08-2008 to the effect that preference is to impose a fine, instead of sending convicts to jail. Originally, the trial court imposed a penalty of imprisonment against Cristy Fermin. On this score, Cristy Fermin, and perhaps media practioners should welcome this judicial benevolence. It affirms our long advocacy that nobody should be jailed for libel. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court imposed a hefty fine against Cristy Fermin, P500,000 each to the complainants Anabelle Rama and husband Eddie Gutierez for the anguish they suffered. That's one million pesos. A lot of money. But more importantly, what I find significant about the decision against Fermin is the pronouncment by the Supreme Court that one cannot utter false malicious statements, even against public officials or public figures (like Rama and Gutierez), if these utterances are unrelated to the performance of official functions or irrelevant to matters of public interest. Here is that quote from the Supreme Court decision: "If the utterances are false, malicious or unrelated to a public officer's performance of his duties or irrelevant to matters of public interest involving public figures, the same may give rise to criminal and civil liability." I think this is very well in consonance with the American rulings in New York Times versus Sullivan and related cases of Curtis versus Butts/Associated Press versus Walker. Simply put, media people can criticize public officials and public figures. But for such criticisms to remain within the ambit of press freedom protections, they must be related to the perofrmance of their duties (if public officials) and relevant to matters of public interest (in case of public figures). Here, while undeniably Eddie Gutierez and Anabelle Rama were public figures, criticims about their being sellers of high-priced kalderos in the U.S., or their being fugitives in the U.S.(which by the way, were proven to be false) are not covered by press freedom protections. Bottom line is, press freedom, while free, must still be exercised with utmost responsibility.