Developments on libel | Inquirer Business
For Law's Sake

Developments on libel

/ 02:03 AM February 20, 2024

Freedom of expression enjoys an exalted place in the hierarchy of constitutional rights. Free expression, however, “is not absolute for it may be so regulated that [its exercise shall neither] be injurious to the equal enjoyment of others having equal rights, nor injurious to the rights of the community or society.”

However, the Supreme Court has stated that libel stands as an exception to the enjoyment of this most guarded constitutional right. (Lopez v. People of the Philippines, GR 172203, Feb 14, 2011)

What is libel

Libel is a form of defamation that involves the publication of false statements or representations about an individual or entity that may harm their reputation.


To hold someone liable for committing the crime of libel, the following elements must be proven to be present:


(1) it must be defamatory
(2) it must be malicious
(3) it must be given publicity; and
(4) the victim must be identified or identifiable

The libelous statement or accusation must be defamatory in that it imputes onto someone a crime, a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance that will tend to cause dishonor, discredit, or contempt of someone or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.

It is committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means. (Revised Penal Code, Art. 353 & 355)

The offender must have also acted with malice, which connotes ill will or spite, and speaks not in response to duty, but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed, and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm.

Publicity of the statement or accusation implies that the material is communicated to a third person. Notably, it is not required that the person defamed has read or heard about the libelous remark. What is material is that a third person has read or heard the libelous statement, because a person’s reputation is the estimate in which others hold him, not the good opinion they have of themselves.

Lastly, the victim must be identified or identifiable, which means that it must be shown that at least a third person or a stranger was able to identify the victim as the object of the defamatory statement. It is enough if there is an allusion that is apparent or if the publication contains matters of description or reference to facts and circumstances from which others reading the article would know the person alluded to.


(Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, Art. 353; Manila Bulletin Publishing Corp, et al. v. Domingo & People of the Philippines, GR 170341, July 5, 2017)

Although all the elements above must be present, it is the defamatory nature of the libelous matter that must be proved first. If the words imputed are not considered defamatory in character, there is no libel. This is so even if done maliciously.

In a case, the Supreme Court reversed a conviction by the lower courts for libel finding that the statements against the complainant were not defamatory in nature. A certain Lopez was convicted for libel by the lower courts for posting several billboards in Cadiz City which read “CADIZ FOREVER, BADING AND SAGAY NEVER”.

The complainant was the city mayor of Cadiz City who was popularly known by his nickname “Bading”, who while going around the city, saw these billboards.

The mayor filed a complaint against Lopez for libel and the lower courts convicted him agreeing that the statements on the billboards tend to induce suspicion on private respondent’s character, integrity and reputation as mayor of Cadiz City.

The mayor claimed that the statements were meant to convey to the people of Cadiz that he is a tuta of Sagay City. The prosecution claimed that the lower courts correctly convicted Lopez as “[w]ords calculated to induce suspicion are sometimes more effective to destroy reputation than false charges directly made” and that “[i]ronical and metaphorical language is a favored vehicle for slander,”

To determine whether a statement is defamatory, the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them, unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense.

In this case, the court found that there was no derogatory imputations of a crime, vice or defect or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending, directly or indirectly, to cause his dishonor. Neither does the phrase in its entirety, employ any unpleasant language or somewhat harsh and uncalled for that would reflect on the mayor’s integrity.

The word “never” does not connote corruption and dishonesty in government service, it is a mere personal reaction on the mayor’s performance of official duty and not purposely designed to malign and besmirch his reputation and dignity more so to deprive him of public confidence.

The court also reiterated its previous rulings that a public official may be attacked, rightly or wrongly with every argument which ability can find or ingenuity invent.

The public officer “may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged by the balm of a clear conscience. A public [official] must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comments upon his official acts.” (Lopez v. People of the Philippines, GR 172203, February 14, 2011)

Cyber libel

With the passage of Republic Act No. 10175, last 2012, the crime of libel now includes Cyber Libel.

The law provides that libel under the RPC which is committed through a computer system or any other similar means such as the use of or through and with the use of information and communications technologies, even those which may be devised in the future, is considered a cybercrime — thus the crime of cyber libel. (Sec. 4(c)(4), RA 10175)

The thing with cyber libel is that the penalty is one degree higher than traditional libel under the RPC.

Libel is punishable by imprisonment of six months and one day to four years and two months or a fine ranging from P40,000 to P1,200,000, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party. On the other hand, cyber libel is punishable with imprisonment of four years, two months and one day to six years and/or a fine of P40,000 to P1,500,000.

Fine for libel as alternative penalty

Previously, questions were raised as to the belief that only imprisonment may be increased or decreased by degrees under the RPC, meaning, imprisonment is the mandatory penalty for cyber libel.

The Supreme Court cleared this up and explained that the penalty of fine may be increased or decreased by degrees of one-fourth without changing the minimum such that each degree of the fine amounts to P300,000. Accordingly, for cyber libel, to determine the penalty, which is one degree higher, P300,000 must be added to the maximum amount for traditional libel, which shall be P1,500,000.

The Supreme Court has also issued its Administrative Circular No. 08-2008 laying down the guidelines in the observance of preference in the imposition of penalties in libel cases. The court stated that Judges may exercise discretion in imposing the penalty on crimes of libel to a fine alone without imprisonment. Failure to pay the fine will result in subsidiary imprisonment.

Prescription of one year

The Supreme Court has also recently clarified that the prescriptive period within which a complaint for crime of Cyber libel must be filed is the same as that of libel.

Accordingly, the prescriptive period of Libel under Article 355 of the RPC and Cyber Libel under Section 4(c)(4) of RA 10175, in relation to Article 355 of the RPC, must be counted from the day on which the crime is discovered by the offended party, the authorities, or their agents. (Causing v. People of the Philippines, G.R. No. 258524, Oct 11, 2023)

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(The author, Atty. John Philip C. Siao, is a practicing lawyer and founding Partner of Tiongco Siao Bello & Associates Law Offices, an Arbitrator of the Construction Industry Arbitration Commission of the Philippines, and teaches law at the De La Salle University Tañada-Diokno School of Law. He may be contacted at [email protected]. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone.)

TAGS: Defamation, For Law's sake, libel

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