CRITICS of blogging and the Internet often characterize the medium as a virtual “wild, wild West,” a place where any schmuck could make anything up with no consequences. But the latter has been proven wrong, and not only with posts or sites containing less-than-factual information. Just recently, Google took issue with Beijing after the Gmail accounts of some Chinese activists were hacked. Last week, a Vietnam court found three “dissidents” guilty of “anti-state” activities via the Net and meted jail terms. Charged and sentenced with them was a lawyer known for his work with Vietnamese bloggers.
Yet it’s not as if communist states like China and Vietnam are the only countries where words let loose in cyberspace have netted considerable trouble. Just this month, former social welfare secretary Esperanza Cabral filed a libel case against a blogger who had wondered why it was so hard to volunteer to pack goods meant for Typhoon Ondoy victims at a Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) facility. Coming at a height of a crisis in which thousands of people were in need of food, water, and clean clothing, the October 21 post on the blog EllaGanda.com caused an Internet firestorm that left the DSWD and Cabral on the defensive.
“As in sa isang humongous warehouse (1000++ sq.m) na punong-puno ng relief goods hanggang bubong, isang DSWD employee lang at isang security guard ang tao!” wrote blogger Ella in the entry called “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? (A special report from a volunteer),” recalling what she said she and her companions saw at a DSWD facility. And yet, she wrote, “I know somebody who wanted to volunteer many times. She was always bumped off, laging nirere-schedule kasi ‘there were too many volunteers’ daw. At tuwing Sunday lang daw puwede.”
To prove her point, Ella posted several pictures of the relief goods stacked inside the warehouse. The next day, she updated her post, and cited a report in which Cabral was said to have told an underling that there were no volunteers, hence the pile-up of goods at the warehouse.
Cabral was vehement in her denial that anything was amiss, and the department vowed to “probe into the malicious blog more thoroughly.” Some three months later, Cabral, who has since been appointed health secretary, has taken another step further and haled Ella to court.
Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines. According to Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code, it is punishable “by prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party.” At the very least, however, a complainant needs to prove a malicious intent on the part of the defendant.
One veteran lawyer defines malice as “any act or utterance tainted with evil motive,” adding that among other things, a complainant needs to show falsity of the accusation, as well as the relationship between the parties to win his or her case. At its most basic, the threat of a libel suit should deter anyone from making irresponsible comments or baseless accusations in public. Unfortunately, human-rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, writing in the book Libel as Politics, notes, “Our laws on criminal libel are so broad and sweeping that they make everyone involved in the delivery of information of public concern a potential criminal.”
Previous libel cases against bloggers
For sure, blogger Ella is not the first Pinoy Netizen to be slapped with a libel suit. The first such case involving a blog, in fact, was filed against this one in 2005 by Jonathan Tiongco, then-Department of Environment and Natural Resources Sec. Mike Defensor’s audio expert during the “Hello, Garci” controversy. According to Tiongco, who passed away in car accident in June 2007, PCIJ was harassing him by way of the blog.
In 2006, the Yuchengco group filed a libel case against the Parents Enabling Parents (PEP) Coalition, a group of parents who had bought pre-need educational plans from the Yuchengcos’ Pacific Plans Inc. The Yuchengco group alleged that several defamatory articles, accusing it of mishandling funds, were posted on the PEP Coalition blog. But the suit was dismissed by a Makati regional trial court after the complainants failed to prove that the court had jurisdiction over the case, a decision later affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
Another prominent libel case involved technology blogger Abe Olandres, who attracted the suit not because of his blog, but because of his web hosting company. Several libelous comments were posted in the Internet forum GreedyOldDumbass.com, which happened to be hosted on his server.
The complaint against Olandres was dismissed after he was determined to be a mere service provider. This did not mean, however, that the individuals who posted the inflammatory comments were no longer liable for libel. (Details of the case are available at the blog of JLP Law, the firm that represented Olandres.)
But perhaps the most prominent incident of a libel case against a blogger in recent memory – that is, before the one against Ella — involved Bambee de la Paz, who blogged about the “Valley Golf Incident” that had her father Delfin and younger brother Bino in a brawl with a group led by agrarian reform secretary Nasser Pangandaman Sr. and his sons, Nasser Jr. and Hussein. The Pangandamans have since challenged Bambee’s account, with the younger Nasser, the mayor of Masiu town in Lanao del Sur, filing libel charges against her in the family’s hometown. Pangandaman’s lawyer Teodoro Pastrana told the PCIJ that contrary to some reports, the libel case against Bambee de la Paz is still pending.
It’s far too early to tell what will happen next in Cabral’s case against Ella, who had commented in her October 22 update to her original post: “I don’t want to accuse (Cabral) of corruption but at the very least she is showing signs of being totally incompetent. We are in a state of calamity where every second counts. May namamatay araw-araw dahil sa sakit (There is someone dying every day because of illness).”
“In my opinion,” she added, “these deaths could have been prevented if Secretary Cabral had tried a little harder to do her job.”
An effective piece of citizen journalism
A long-time bureaucrat whose commitment to her work has been admired by many, Cabral probably found those words hard to take. Still, the merit of Ella’s original post seems to have been lost in the debate over the ensuing libel case. Far from rumor-mongering, the post was an excellent piece of blogging and citizen journalism. It was informative, detailed, and well-documented, and it was written in a light, informal tone that resonated with any blog reader. It also asked pertinent questions: Why was it so hard to sign up to volunteer? Why wasn’t the facility taking in more volunteers when other venues had a surplus of them? What was going to happen to the relief goods once the damage from Ondoy becomes out of sight and out of mind?
The post was also effective, because after it gained popularity, traditional media outlets and bloggers swooped down on the DSWD facility to look into the matter. They confirmed what Ella had written about in her blog — that the DSWD could use help so that the relief goods could get out to the victims much faster. More importantly, Ella’s post served as a siren call for volunteers to come in droves to the warehouse and help with the packing of the relief goods. It underscored the power of blogging and highlighted the role of the citizen journalist in calling attention to important issues that may otherwise be left unreported.
Perhaps Ella herself said it best in yet another follow-up to her original post: “I was there in the warehouse. I presented the pictures. I think I’ve done my part as a concerned citizen.” It’s just too bad that like many other concerned citizens in this country, she, too, has been served with libel.