BAGUIO CITY – The Department of Justice (DOJ) denied a petition for review initiated by lawyer Ana Marie Paz Rafael, the purported general manager of the Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO) that earlier sought to assail the decision of the City Prosecutor’s office that dismissed the cyber libel charges she filed against a local personality, Mia Magdalena C. Fokno, for lack of merit.
In an 11-page resolution signed by Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, the DOJ maintained the dismissal of the complaint for cyber libel against the said personality to be in order.
As provided in Section 4 © (4) of Republic Act (RA) 10175, online libel is ‘the unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.’
For an imputation to be considered libelous under Article 353, the resolution outlined that the requisites must be present such as it must be defamatory, it must be malicious, it must be given publicity and the victim must be identifiable. Under RA 10175, a fifth element is added for online libel which is that the act must be committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.
The resolution pointed out that the element of publication, the identity of the victim, and the use of a computer system are clearly not at issue in the said case considering that the complainant is mentioned in the post of the personality which were published in social media.
However, as to the elements of the defamatory allegation, and malice, the DOJ examined the controversial post in the light of the existing jurisprudential guidepost.
In determining whether a statement is defamatory to satisfy the first element, the DOJ pointed out that the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them: unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense.
In the instant case, the DOJ stated that the alleged post made by the respondent clearly showed that it ascribes to the complainant the commission of a crime of theft and usurpation which discredits and puts the latter on contempt.
Crucial in the said case, according to the resolution, is the question of whether there existed actual malice or not in the assailed post where malice is defined as the essence of the crime of libel and it cannot or quonotes ill will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm. Malice is bad faith or bad motive. In order to constitute malice, the ill will must be personal; and the complainant bears the burden of establishing the presence of actual malice.
As established by the complainant in the said case, the DOJ noted that the facebook post which insinuated that she had exited through a window clearly ascribes a crime of theft as shown in the phrase ‘well, how else does a theft in the night go out?’ By the said phrase, the respondent gave the impression to the reading public that the complainant is a thief at night which is clearly malicious since it is not true.
Notwithstanding the defamatory imputation in the aforequoted post, the DOJ stipulated that Article 354 or the Revised Penal code provides for instances when the author of malicious post can be exempted from criminal liability.
Evaluated against the exemptions enumerated in the said provision, the DOJ emphasized that there is no doubt that the respondent’s facebook post as to theft and usurper cannot be considered as either private communication or a report without any comments or remarks. The exemptions enumerated in the said article, however, are not exclusive since jurisprudence provides for additional exemptions to the privilege communications rule.
Worthy to note, the decision emphasized that the privilege communication rule and its exemptions will not apply for the offended party is a private individual since the prosecution need not prove the presence of malice. The law explicitly presumes the existence of malice from the defamatory character of the assailed statement. There is actual malice or malice in fact when the offender makes the defamatory statement with the knowledge that it is foul or with reckless disregard or whether it is false or not.
In the aforesaid case, the DOJ explained that the respondent raised the defense of qualifiedly privileged communication since the alleged facebook post were directed against a person, the purported BENECO general manager, who is considered a public figure, hence, there is no presumption of the existence of malice. As can be gleaned from the records, the complainant has utterly failed to establish the presence of malice to sustain the libel case.
The DOJ added that there is no question that the complainant is a public figure based on existing jurisprudence where a person counts as a public figure if he or she is a public official in the sense that he or she works with the government; if, while not employed by government, he or she otherwise has pervasive fame or notoriety in the community or if he or she has thrust himself or herself into some particular controversy in order to influence its resolution.
Viewed in the light of the foregoing, the investigating prosecutor is correct when she made the pronouncement that respondent’s facebook posts are considered qualifiedly privileged communications simply because they were statements of facts directed against a public figure who is the purported BENECO manager. The absence of personal ill will against complainant disavows actual malice and gives credence to respondent’s arguments that she was prompted by legitimate motives in writing the Facebook post.
Well settled, the DOJ claimed, is the rule that the determination of probable cause depends heavily on the evidence presented by the complainant and not on the weakness of the defense. Precisely, the purpose of preliminary investigation is not only to protect the accused from the inconvenience, expense, the burden of defending himself or herself in a formal trial but also to spare the State from having to conduct useless and expensive trials.