Court affirms republication a separate libel offense, prescription period is 12 years

In convicting Rappler journalists, a Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) affirmed on Monday, June 15, that republication makes for a separate libel offense and that cyber libel's prescription period is 12 years.

The decision of Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 to convict Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Rey Santos Jr is made possible by those two legal issues.

Had it not been for those, the disputed article written by Santos would not have been covered by the 2012 Cybercrime Law.

Santos' investigative report on the late former chief justice Renato Corona, linking him to businessmen, including complainant Wilfredo Keng, was written in May 2012. The cybercrime law was enacted only in September 2012.

However, Rappler made a correction on a typographical error in February 2014, changing the misspelled word "evation" to evasion.

Applying the 2004 case Brillante vs CA, Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa said "each publication constitutes one offense of libel without qualification as to whether it was modified or not."

"Applying the said ruling, as long as the defamatory statement is published several times, it gives rise to as many offenses as there are publications," the judge added.

"In this case, the fact remains that in the republished article dated February 19, 2014, the defamatory statements can still be found giving rise to the present indictment," the judge said.

Rappler counsels said that based on American jurisprudence, where Philippine libel laws are based, multiple republication will not apply if there was no substantial change to the article.

However, Judge Montesa said Rappler was not able to provide sufficient proof that only a typographical correction was made. 

It was Rappler Investigative Head Chay Hofileña who testified that only a typographical correction was made, but the court said her testimony was hearsay.

During trial, Hofileña explained that it wasn't Santos who spotted the typographical error but another reporter.

"The editors gave her the go signal to correct the typo. Process-wise, it's a hierarchy in the newsroom. No reporter can directly go into the system and make changes. So, that would have to have a go signal from the senior editor," said Hofileña during trial.

The judge, however, said, "The defense did not adduce any evidence to establish her personal involvement in the writing of the article or in updating it. This makes her testimony on the correction of the typographical error and updating of the article hearsay. As such, said testimony is inadmissible." 

The judge faulted Rappler for not putting Santos on the stand, saying, "it is striking that the defense did not present accused Santos, being the author of the article, to confirm the existence of the typographical error."

Prescription period

The court also affirmed that the prescription period of cyber libel is 12 years.

Ordinary libel in the Revised Penal Code is only 1 year, meaning, one can be sued for libel only within a year of publication.

But the 2012 cybercrime law was silent on the prescription period of cyber libel.

The court sided with the Department of Justice that Act 3326 gives cyber crimes a 12-year prescription period, meaning, one can be sued for cyber libel within 12 years of publication.

"Thus the one-year prescriptive period for ordinary libel does not apply," said the judge.

Ressa said that those two decisions will "affect every Filipino."

"Kapag nag post kayo sa Facebook o Twitter, the period of your liability has been moved from one year to 12 years," said Ressa. (When you post on Facebook or Twitter, the period of your liability has been moved from one year to 12 years.)

"Because Rappler fixed a typo, we are now sentenced to jail," said Ressa.

"If you have an article that had already lapsed, say you posted it 12 years ago but you had a typo and you fixed it, the 12-year plot begins again," Ressa said. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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