Online libel: Aussie blogger’s victims are helpless

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 28 2008 01:32 PM | Updated as of Mar 28 2008 09:32 PM


By CARMELA FONBUENA
 
Early this month, Australian Brian Gorrell, 40, signed up for a free blog account. His blog—on stories about love, money, betrayal, violence, and crimes of the young party-going segment of Philippine society’s rich and famous—has since gripped hundreds of thousands, growing into an Internet sensation.   It has also become a case study for online libel laws as those who feel they have been defamed try to seek legal redress.   Readers in China , Canada , Australia , Philippines —especially in the Philippines —and other parts of the globe have been checking out Gorrel’s blog religiously. In a single day, he draws an online traffic of over 50,000. That is very high for a personal blog.
 
Other bloggers and even foreign media organizations including various Philippine media groups have also picked up his story.
 
Why the fuss over this blog?                     
 
His blog—a personal account of his experiences with a Filipino ex-lover—has all the elements of controversy. In the process, he tells all about the sons and daughters of wealthy families with whom he hang out when he was in the Philippines. Once or twice, familiar big political surnames are dropped, too.
 
He writes about a model allegedly cheating on her influential husband, a popular events organizer allegedly selling drugs in his parties, personalities who are supposedly drug addicts, and other ugly details about his former friends.   $70,000-debt
 
But Gorrell says that the purpose of the blog is not to shame all his former friends. It is the means to an end, which is to get back the money that his former lover allegedly stole from him. It amounts to US$70,000—his lifetime savings he says—which he invested in a joint restaurant business with the former lover. The restaurant turned out to be non-existent, so his account goes.
 
Gorrell writes that they had a violent fight after he began asking the former lover about his investment. One thing led to another and Gorrell had to fly back to Australia .   And then the blog was born.   In every post, Gorrel always begs for the ex-lover to pay him back.  “Pay me back, [name of Filipino lover] PLEASE. I’m begging you to end this for me. I need the money. My medication is not cheap. My HIV is not going anyway anytime soon,” he said in one post.
 
Comments on Gorrell’s posts show that a majority of his readers believe his account. That he is HIV positive also generated a lot of sympathy for the Australian.
 
Lawyers’ concerns   Unknown perhaps to Gorrell, his blog has also stirred up the “interest” of some Filipino lawyers who are not in any way related to his characters. Lawyer Edwin Lacierda, an expert on Constitutional law teaching at the Far Eastern University and De La Salle University, is among the unexpected visitors of Gorrell’s blog.
 
More than the scandals, it is the legal implications of the blog that Lacierda finds interesting. Even University of the Philippines College of Law lawyer Theodore Te finds the unfolding Internet scandal “exciting” for the legal community. He first read about Gorrell in the newspapers.
 
Gorrell is right when he said, “it has become bigger than me,” referring to the blog. Although not the first of its kind, Gorrell’s blog intensified discussions on how, if at all, the Internet should be controlled.
 
When Gorrell posted his stories on the Internet, they began to have lives of their own. At one point Gorrell decided to shut down the blog. But after receiving 3,000 emails all over the world asking him to revive it, he did.   There’s little he can do to moderate the comments, too. Gorrell himself, creator of the blog, lost control over it.
 
Libelous?   Based on his scan on the blog, Lacierda finds “cause of action” for Gorrell, citing several image copies of his bank documents.
 
On the other hand, Lacierda also finds Gorrell’s statements “libelous.” “They are malicious,” he said.   This is the reason abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak is not divulging the identities of the Filipino characters—most of whom are not public figures.
 
UP Law professor JJ Disini agreed with Lacierda’s assessment of the blog. “I think that the statements are libelous,” he told ANC’s Media in Focus on March 27. He explained that while some of the characters in Gorrell’s blog are famous, the libelous statements have nothing to do with what they are famous for.
 
Aside from libel, Disini said that Gorrell may also be charged with blackmail. “Blackmail may be a crime where he is from.”
 
The other characters who have been dragged were treated unfairly by Gorrell, Disini said. Gorrell also wrote uncompromising details about the former lover’s friends in an attempt to get them to pressure the former lover to pay him back.   “In a very basic level, that’s unfair,” Disini said. “[They are] being used as pawns to get the money back.”
 
Settle in court   Gorrell and the Filipino characters in the blog have several legal options if they intend to bring the matter to the courts. The easiest way is for Gorrell to come back to the Philippines, the lawyers said.
 
Gorrell can file criminal charges against the former lover. After all, the alleged crime of the Filipino ex-lover was committed here. The former lover can also file libel charges against Gorrell for his allegations.
 
What makes the situation “interesting” is the fact that Gorrell is not inclined to go back to the Philippines or file charges against the former lover. “No way,” he said in one post. “I have absolutely no intention of spending the next three years of my life battling a liar or thief in your court system in Manila. I have experienced enough of the corrupt process you call law in the Philippines . I’m done. You will never get me into a courthouse in your country. Ever.”
 
It is clear in Gorrell’s blog that he wants to settle the matter out of the courts. And until the former lover pays him up, the blog and the ugly revelations will continue, so he says in the blog.
 
Maligned Filipinos want blog stopped   Naturally, it is the Filipinos maligned in the blog that are resorting to legal options to stop Gorrell’s blog. The Filipinos’ lawyers have gotten in touch with Gorrell to convince him to bring the matter to the courts, but to no avail. Gorrell published the entirety of the lawyers’ letter in his blog, too.
 
One of the subjects has called on the Philippine government to cooperate with the Australian police. Gorrell received a visit from representatives of the Philippine Consulate in Australia who was accompanied by Australian police, but that didn’t stop Gorrell from blogging. According to Gorrell, he was not charged with any crime after the visit from the police.
 
Helpless   “It’s technically a stalemate,” UP’s Te said of the situation. Although there are other legal actions that the Filipino characters may take, they are both “tedious” and “very expensive.”
 
The Filipino characters may file a civil case against Gorrell in the Philippines even if Gorrell is in Australia . Although lawyers said this option hardly makes any point because Gorrell has no properties in the Philippines .   Another option is: they may try to get Gorrell extradited to the Philippines to face the criminal case. However, the Australian government will surely protect its citizen, Te said. Libel may be filed as criminal case, civil case, or both.
 
Still another option is to file the case in Australia . The problem with this option, aside from being very expensive, is that the Filipino characters will lose home court advantage. Unfamiliarity with Australian law is clearly a setback, too.   That laws for the Internet remain to be clarified doesn’t make it any easier. In the Philippines , Internet bills are still pending in Congress. “The definition of libel may be different in Australia ,” said Te.
 
Dangerous precedent   Former Bb. Pilippinas Ana Theresa Licaros understands the difficulty of dealing with online libel. After she won the pageant last year, several hardcore pageant fans who were not fond of her began posting critical statements about her in online forums.
 
Although she recognizes that as a beauty titlist, she has become a public figure, “sadly, some of the posts are bordering on defamation,” she said.
 
“I found it really bothersome the way they posted my photos and compared these with other beauty pageant winners. Among the less vulgar comments they would say about her was  ‘mukhang barangay tanod.’ I was knocked off for being the smart girl. They say that it’s not a quiz bee.”
 
Aside from currently taking up law in the University of the Philippines , Licaros also finished a broadcasting degree in the same university and graduated summa cum laude.
 
Licaros consulted Te, who was her professor. Licaros considered filing libel charges against her critics. She went to the extent of tracking the IP addresses of the anonymous persons critical of her. She found out that they usually use just one IP address, which means that her critics may be using an Internet connection at home or in a regular internet café.
 
Licaros could have asked the help of the authorities to help her track the IP address, until she decided to reconsider filing a case. “Even if I was personally hurt, I decided not to pursue a case. Although I was really tempted,” she said.
 
Knowing that the laws on cyberspace are still being defined, the lawyer and the media student in her feared that the “result might extend to other areas of speech that I don’t want to be curtailed.”