About Time

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HINAHAMON KITA,” PCOO Asec. Mocha Uson taunted Sen. Sonny Trillanes via video blog on September 13. “Ituloy mo ang kaso. …at kung mananalo ka magreresign ako ngunit kung matalo ka ikaw ang magresign at kung di mo itutuloy ang kaso, ibig sabihin wala kang b****!”

Uson tightened the screws with near daily gibes on social media where she dubbed Trillanes the “Presscon King” and counted the days he had thus far failed to sue her. She insisted she wasn’t merely sniping but, in fact, that she was righteously protesting his “bullying“:

Binibilangan po namin si Trillanes dahil sawa na kami sa ganyang style niya na puro dada ng dada. Panay ang pambubully niya kay PRRD at sa pagkakataon naman na ito pati mga DDS ay kanyang binubully. THIS HAS TO STOP. Ang kanyang mga baseless at stupid accusation sa ating gobyerno ay dapat matigil na. Kung itong pang bubully niya sa atin ay hindi niya mapanindigan at mapatunayan paano pa kaya ang mga pambubully niya kay PRRD?”

After all the hue and cry, on the 11th day of her wait, she finally got what she asked for.

At 11 am on September 22, Trillanes filed six criminal complaints against Uson before the Ombudsman for violations of the Cybercrime Prevention Act on libel (3 counts), the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (1 count), the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (1 count), and for falsification and use of false documents (1 count). He also charged Uson administratively with grave misconduct for continuing to manage her group Mocha Girls and perform with them despite her appointment to a high government post.

Facing the media, Trillanes announced, “The era of fake news is over.”

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The first page of the complaint. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Senator Trillanes)

“ALLEGED”

Uson is in a bind because she shared a dubious “exposé” about Trillanes’s purported offshore accounts. She captioned the post, “Alleged tagong yaman ni Trillanes,” thinking that the “alleged” would shield her from liability. She was so confident about it that, when Trillanes said he would sue her, she snarkily retorted, “Paki Google po ang meaning ng ‘alleged’ o ‘allegedly’ dahil mahilig naman po kayo mag Google…”

It’s a common misunderstanding. That’s the reason why, when I was a journalism student, it was pounded into us that such cop-outs weren’t enough.

Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code says libel is committed when a “discreditable act or condition” is imputed to a person; when that imputation is published; when the defamed person is identified; and, when it is malicious.

“Publication” means communicating this defamatory statement to somebody else. The libeled person doesn’t even have to hear about or read the insult; it’s enough that someone else does. What is at risk here, after all, is one’s reputation and not one’s self-esteem.*

And so we budding journalists were taught a basic rule: what we mean to say is not as weighty as what our words actually mean. That is, if our words cast a shadow on someone’s reputation, the slur is not minimized just because we happen to use the term “allegedly.”**

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Placard carried by a millennial at the Manlaban para sa Karapatan! concert, Commission on Human Rights, Sept. 21, 2017. (photo: Candy Cruz Datu©2017)

MALICE

It’s important that our libel laws consider defamatory statements inherently malicious.

Article 354 of the RPC says that “Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown…”

There are two exceptions: (1) privileged communications, and (2) objective, uneditorialized reports about public official proceedings and the official acts of government officers. There are loopholes, though: Even privileged communications may be the subject of a libel case if clear proof of malice is found in them; as for government employees, if the allegations made against them are proven true – especially if this involves their official duties – then their case for libel will not stand.

Malice is characterized by ill will that must be evidently personal. If ill will is caused by a sense of injustice or other motive, then it will not qualify as the kind of malice that proves libel. It must also be shown that personal malice is what motivates the publication of the offending statement.

This brief discussion rather oversimplifies it, but this is essentially how it works.

(For those who wish to read more on the topic, click here).

TIME

The question is if Mocha Uson has committed libel. This is, of course, something for the Ombudsman to affirm or deny; but it is tempting to speculate.

It can be argued that all the elements of libel are found in her “tagong yaman” post. Since Trillanes is a government official, defamatory statements against him may be exempted if they are proven true. Unfortunately for Mocha, she herself weakened that defense (in my view) by saying his graft was “alleged” – meaning she herself wasn’t sure it was true when she wrote it. And the issue of malice will be hard for Mocha to exclude, because if there is anything that marks a Mocha Uson utterance, it is that.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 applies in this case because Uson’s statement was published via a computer system. Cyberlibel is essentially the same crime described in Art. 353 and 354 of the RPC except for the method of publication and the penalty, which is intensified by one degree.

This means that if Mocha Uson is convicted, she may be sentenced to anywhere from 6 to 10 years’ imprisonment for each count of libel, plus ordered to pay fines; she’s facing three charges of cyberlibel – that’s at least 18 years’ detention. She’s facing other criminal charges besides.

To write this piece, I had to review her Facebook and Twitter accounts at least as far back as September 13. That’s less than 10 days’ worth of posts, but they made my stomach churn. She’s said to be the Queen of Fake News but she doesn’t actually originate much of it. True, she shares a lot from scurvy sources and seriously enables them; but I found her rather to be the Queen of Divisiveness, whose subtle, innuendo-laced comments are surgically placed to inseminate doubt, contempt, hatred, and rage for dilawans and all opponents. Conversely, she strokes, cajoles, props up and coddles the ka-DDS who adore her and revere her poon. She vilifies the mainstream media to validate Duterte bloggers; she discredits responsible reportage to enthrone government press releases. This, in a word, is malice.

Even so – the idea that she may potentially spend her life in jail shakes me. I don’t wish that on anyone. But when I reflect on what she has done to sunder us, to cheapen our heroes and the principles we uphold, to abet the war that has killed multitudes, to trounce the very truths that should define us, I’m satisfied that her testing is just. So my response to the Trillanes complaint that may see her doing serious time is simple: it’s about time.

You say, “I choose the appointed time;
it is I who judge with equity.
When the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm.
To the arrogant I say, ‘Boast no more,’
and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horns.
Do not lift your horns against heaven;
do not speak so defiantly.’”

Psalm 75:2-5

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* Or, as jurisprudence has it, “a man’s reputation is the estimate in which others hold him in, not the good opinion which he has of himself.” [Alonzo v. Court of Appeals, 241 SCRA 51 (1995)]

** The courts use this test to determine the commission of libel:

“Words calculated to induce suspicion are sometimes more effective to destroy reputation than false charges directly made. Ironical and metaphorical language is a favored vehicle for slander. A charge is sufficient if the words are calculated to induce the hearers to suppose and understand that the person or persons against whom they were uttered were guilty of certain offenses, or are sufficient to impeach their honesty, virtue, or reputation, or to hold the person or persons up to public ridicule. . . . ”[Lacsa v. Intermediate Appellate Court, 161 SCRA 427 (1988) citing U.S. v. O’Connell, 37 Phil. 767 (1918)]

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