Social Media, and Mass Media: Or, I, being blind, must blind you

Update: On Monday, 21 May 2018, the Senate voted Mr Vicente Sotto III to the Senate presidency.   This former head of the Dangerous Drugs Board (2008) has been in the House since 1994, and is serving the second of two, allowed consecutive terms as Senator – the fourth of his political career.  A report of his accomplishments in office is reported elsewhere.  He enters this term under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, where the Senate will have to confront the unconstitutional removal of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno from office, and the prospect of a Constitutional crisis.

A bit thick in the skull, the Senator Mr. Tito Sotto had this to say to critics recently:

“If mainstream media are prevented by law from cursing and engaging in character assassination, why should those in the social media and in the Internet be exempted from such accountability,” said Sotto, who had proposed the extension of the Act’s coverage to include libel.

(From Philippine Daily Inquirer Online, Sotto: What’s wrong with online libel?)

I find this thought to be compelling: Philippine libel law is out of sync with how civil liberties have come to be interpreted in the past century, of which more was recently written by Atty Harry Roque, here. The main weakness in Philippine libel law, is simply that truth is not a defense against a charge of libel. The key concept is that of defamatory speech, such as, for example contained in the statement “Mr. Tito Sotto is a demonstrated plagiarist.”  It is a statement that is harmful to the reputation of the subject of the sentence.  Libel law in this 21st century Philippines is intended to deter this kind of speech, and make it possible to sue the issuer (for example, me) for damages claims.  Such a statement forms (and is indeed, intended to form) an opinion in the mind of my reader in such a way as to seriously diminish the possibility of his being elected back into office at some future time. I assert, thus, that my country needs no stinkin’ punyeta plagiarists in the House of Congress.

I can be sued and fined for saying this under existing libel law. And there, as my oldtime favorite columnist Conrad de Quiros puts it, there is the rub.

Certain laws that do apply to the domain of print and broadcast media, it can be argued, should be applied to neither the mass media, nor to social media.

Mr Sotto’s argument is, in essence, a defense that, “two wrongs make a right.”  Creating bad law governing the conduct of electronically-mediated free speech between citizens, to match an equally bad law that aims to defend against defamation (itself of dubious value), only makes bad law apply equally to two separate spheres of public discourse.

What’s wrong with preventing cursing and engaging in character assassination in any channel of public discourse?  Only one “little” thing:  Defamatory speech is still speech, with defamation only being defamation in the eye (or the ear) of the beholder; no law can abridge that, or so I take it from the Bill of Rights, Article III, in that little old document we call our Constitution:

Section 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.

Libel laws that enforce prior restraint of our Section 4 right, are, arguably, not the way to counter the possibility of sustaining actual economic harm, arising from damage to one’s reputation. Libel law, even if it is law, is still bad law. 

Now, come to think of it, it’s actually politicos who manage to establish favors to be traded for future or present economic gain, that are actually harmed by damage to their reputations, eh? With such persons, that kind of character (or lack thereof) deserves to be exposed, fully, the better to excise those persons from the body of government as one would a pus-filled cyst.

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