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Willie Revillame

Willie and libel

The Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office rightfully dismissed child abuse and libel raps filed in connection with “Jon-Jon’s” notorious “macho boy” dance sequence in the program of Willie Revillame. Ironically, it was even the parents of Jon-jon who filed suit against bloggers Froilan Grate and John Silva. Also sued was noted child psychologist Lourdes Carandang.

The three were sued over statements intended to protect the rights of Jon-jon as a child. Recall that in an episode of the show “Willing Willie,” Jon-jon was asked by TV host Willie Revillame to gyrate like a macho dancer in exchange for cash. While the boy obliged, television viewers, including the respondents, did not fail to notice that the boy was in tears while performing for the camera.

Grate created a Facebook page criticizing the television host for the incident. He also sent communication to various government agencies complaining about the incident. Silva criticized the television host in his own Facebook account. Carandang, on the other hand, issued a professional opinion that the incident had adverse effects on Jon-jon and other children who saw the incident on television.

The Center for International Law (Centerlaw), a civil society organization that seeks to promote freedom of expression, among others, represented Grate before the fiscal’s office. It argued that since criminal statutes such as libel are strictly construed against the state, libel on the Internet, in the absence of a statute, is not criminal. It also argued that the criticisms published by Grate on Facebook were covered by qualified privilege since they were fair commentaries on an issue that involves the public interest: that is, the protection of the rights of minors. Centerlaw is the same outfit that successfully impugned Philippine criminal libel law as being contrary to freedom of expression in the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

As chairman of Centerlaw, I submit that this latest legal victory is a big win for freedom of expression. The Internet, albeit initially developed as part of a US defense initiative, the so-called, “star wars technology,” has nonetheless made possible what legal theorists have referred to as the “free market place of ideas”.  This market enables the people to ascertain the truth and develop opinions. Without this free marketplace of ideas, we would not have public opinion that is indispensible in any democracy. This is why our courts have repeatedly declared infringements on freedom of expression as null and void.

Clearly, this recent victory has gotten rid of another obstacle to enable the Internet to perform the crucial role of an information superhighway.

It is also good news that the respective drafts of the Department of Justice and the UP Law Center for a New Criminal Code have both done away with criminal libel. Apparently, there is finally recognition that criminal libel is not indispensible since there is an alternative, to wit, civil damages. Furthermore, there too is the recognition that what libel seeks to protect—the right to privacy of private individuals—is not proportionate to the means it adopts to achieve this: imprisonment. The only problem now is how soon Congress can enact an entirely new code of crimes. My bet is it will take at least four years.

This is why Centerlaw is also provoking jurisprudence to declare criminal libel as being contrary to our treaty obligations and hence null and void. While the “view” of the UN Human Rights Committee is that our libel law is contrary to freedom of expression, the view itself is not binding. At most, it is evidence of a breach of a treaty obligation and hence, contrary to the Latin maxim of pacta sundt servanda, or treaty obligations must be complied with in good faith. This, according to our Supreme Court, in turn, is a “generally accepted principle of international law” and hence “forms part of the laws of the land.”

The latest case where we have invoked the defense of pacta sudt servanda as a ground to invalidate our criminal libel law is in a pending case for libel filed by the sitting mayor of Iloilo City against the Daily News Today. This is the first instance where the UN view has been raised as a defense in an actual, pending libel case. It is anticipated that regardless of how the Iloilo Regional Trial Court resolves this defense, the matter will be elevated to the Supreme Court on an issue of law.

I hope that the high court then accepts the UN view as evidence of a breach of Philippine law: that of pacta sundt servanda.