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Libel is a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act or omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. (Art. 333, Revised Penal Code). It is committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means, is punishable with 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.
Related terms and concepts
The false imputation of a crime upon which a prosecution might be instituted by the Government on its own motion. This a felony under the old Penal Code (Art. 452). The Revised Penal Code, however, has absorbed libel (under Act No. 277) and calumny and insult (under the old Penal Code), thereby removing the idle distinction between calumny, insult and libel.
Defamation, which includes slander and libel, means injuring a person’s character, fame or reputation through false and malicious statements.
Oral defamation is called slander.
Defamation committed by "means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting or theatrical or cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means."
For an imputation then to be libelous, the following requisites must concur: it must be defamatory; it must be malicious; it must be given publicity; and the victim must be identifiable.
Any of the imputations covered by Article 353 is defamatory and, under the general rule laid down in Article 354, 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 is malice when the author of the imputation is prompted by personal ill-will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person who claims to have been defamed. Truth then is not a defense, unless it is shown that the matter charged as libelous was made with good motives and for justifiable ends. However, malice is not presumed and must be proved, under the following exceptions provided for in Article 354, viz.: a private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and a fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks; of any judicial legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions. The privileged character of these communications is not absolute, but merely qualified since they could still be shown to be malicious by proof of actual malice or malice in fact. The burden of proof in this regard is on the plaintiff or the prosecution.
Effect of Administrative Circular No. 08-2008
The Supreme Court issued Administrative Circular No. 08-2008, providing for Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases. It instructs all courts and judges to take note of certain preferences in imposing penalties for the crime of libel. “The Judges concerned may, in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperatives of justice.” Trial courts may, in its discretion and based on the peculiar circumstances of each case, impose only a fine, instead of imprisonment.
Cases wherein only a fine was imposed
There are a number of illustrations mentioned in the Circular. One of the cases cited is Fernando Sazon vs. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, wherein the Supreme Court modified the penalty imposed upon petitioner, an officer of a homeowners’ association, for the crime of libel from imprisonment and fine in the amount of P200.00, to fine only of P3,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, for the reason that he wrote the libelous article merely to defend his honor against the malicious messages that earlier circulated around the subdivision, which he thought was the handiwork of the private complainant. There are other illustrations stated in the Circular.
Imprisonment still a penalty for libel
There are some criticisms that the Circular removes imprisonment as a penalty for libel. However, the Circular explicitly states that it “does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime of libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code.” In other words, the Circular does not “decriminalize” libel and the court could still impose imprisonment if called for by the circumstances.
Also, even if only a fine is imposed but the accused fails or refuses to pay, the accused could be imprisoned, applying the Revised Penal Code provisions on subsidiary imprisonment.
Date of effectivity
The Circular takes effect upon its issuance, or on 25 January 2008.
Some critics argue that the Supreme Court is, in effect, amending the law, referring to such act as “judicial legislation”. The Supreme Court, however, is merely interpreting the law. The law itself allows the judge to choose between the following penalties: (a) fine only; (b) imprisonment only; OR (c) both fine and imprisonment.
In fact, back in 2000, the Supreme Court provided for a similar rule of preference in the application of the penalties provided for in Batas Pambansa Blg. 22, commonly known as the Bouncing Checks Law (Administrative Circular No. 12-2000, as clarified by Administrative Circular No. 13-2001).