Court junks PH's first Facebook libel case

By Karen Flores,

Posted at Jul 26 2011 06:56 PM | Updated as of Jul 27 2011 08:51 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Cosmetic surgeon Vicki Belo suffered a setback after a court in Antipolo City dismissed a libel suit she filed against lawyer Argee Guevarra, who posted "slanderous" comments on his Facebook page in 2009.

In the court decision, Antipolo City Regional Trial Court Judge Mary Josephine Lazaro said Internet libel cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional constraints.

Guevarra, in a statement released on Tuesday, said Lazaro anchored her dismissal on improper venue without considering the issues he raised such as the Justice Department's ruling that there is no such crime as Internet libel "which should bar prosecutors from even entertaining such complaints."

"To begin with, it is already indicative that Dra. Belo shopped for a friendly fiscal, that's why she filed the libel case in the province of Rizal despite the fact that she resides in Makati and I live in Pasig City," he said.

Guevarra's counsels, Luke Espiritu and Resty Mendoza, said the decision is "a small step forward in making Facebook one of the freest forums for the nearly 20 million Filipino Facebook users to exercise their right to free speech and expression."

They further accused Belo of spending money on "misleading, if not false, advertisements" and behaving "as though she is Chief Censor of Cyberspace who can control and suppress critical thought and opinion."

Belo's complaint against Guevarra is said to be the Philippines' first Facebook libel case.

Guevarra, a former counsel of Josephine Norcio, launched an information campaign against the cosmetic surgeon on his Facebook page in September 2009. Norcio allegedly suffered complications from 2 butt augmentation procedures conducted by doctors of the Belo Medical Group.

Espiritu, leader of Partido Lakas ng Masa, said Facebook can serve as a "democratic weapon for the weak to air their legitimate grievances."

Given this, it should not be subject to intrusion by the state, he said.

More Facebook libel suits

A few Facebook libel cases have been filed worldwide.

The world's first known Facebook defamation suit was filed by British businessman Matthew Firsht against former school friend Grant Raphael in 2008.

Through a Facebook page called "Has Matthew Firsht lied to you?" Raphael made false and defamatory claims about Firsht.

Firsht won the case and was given a total of 22,000 pounds in libel damages and breach of privacy.

Another example is the 2009 case of Indonesian Prita Mulyasari, who complained about poor service in Omni International Hospital via Facebook and e-mail. Omni sued Mulyasari for Internet libel, and the latter spent 21 days in prison.

This caused netizens to set up a Facebook page for her release, which eventually led to the dismissal of libel cases filed against Mulyasari.

"The dismissal of the libel case against Guevarra is akin to the 2009 case of Indonesian activist Prita Mulyasari," Espiritu said.

What constitutes libel?

Last year, the legal counsel of Krista Ranillo hinted that they may file libel suits against actress Gina Alajar for posting a negative comment on her Facebook page in 2009.

No libel suits from the camp of Ranillo, who is now married to a supermarket chain owner in the United States, have been reported as of posting time.

The controversial shout out came in light of reports that Ranillo, who was then rumored to be having an affair with boxing icon Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, caused her break-up with husband Michael de Mesa. It was quoted in full by several media outlets and users of social networking sites.

Alajar said in her defense that her statement was meant to be kept private and thus, is not libelous.

A cyber law expert, however, stressed that the mere potential of someone knowing about the statement, such as leaving a comment on Facebook for friends and family to see, already constitutes libel.

"When you put something on your Facebook, you're publishing it at the very least to your friends. But in libel law, even if you send [a libelous statement] to 2 or 3 people, that's libel. That's enough to meet the standard for publication in libel," Atty. Jose Jesus Disini earlier said.

Article 335 of the Revised Penal Code provides that anyone found guilty of libel could face imprisonment of up to 6 years. To be liable for libel in the Philippines, the elements of defamatory imputation, publicity, malice and identification must exist. 

Early this year, Senator Manuel Villar filed a bill that aims to penalize those who defame others through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic media.