What is libel?
Libel is â€œa public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.â€ (Article. 353, Revised Penal Code; more discussion here)
What is the imposable penalty for libel?
Libel, committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means, is punishable with prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party. (Art. 355, RPC)
What is the significance of Administrative Circular No. 08-2008 (full text), issued by the Supreme Court on 25 January 2008 (A.M. No. 08-1-17-SC)?
Administrative Circular No. 08-2008, providing for Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases, instructs all courts and judges to take note of certain preferences in imposing penalties for the crime of libel. “The Judges concerned may, in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperatives of justice.”
Is there any case or jurisprudence wherein only a fine was imposed?
Yes, there are a number of illustrations mentioned in the Circular. One of the cases cited is Fernando Sazon v. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, wherein the Supreme Court modified the penalty imposed upon petitioner, an officer of a homeowners’ association, for the crime of libel from imprisonment and fine in the amount of P200.00, to fine only of P3,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, for the reason that he wrote the libelous article merely to defend his honor against the malicious messages that earlier circulated around the subdivision, which he thought was the handiwork of the private complainant. There are other illustrations stated in the Circular (full text here).
Does the Circular remove imprisonment as a penalty for libel?
No. The Circular explicitly states that it “does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime of libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code.” In other words, the Circular does not “decriminalize” libel and the court could still impose imprisonment if called for by the circumstances. Also, even if only a fine is imposed but the accused fails or refuses to pay, the accused could be imprisoned, applying the Revised Penal Code provisions on subsidiary imprisonment.
When does the Circular take effect?
It takes effect upon its issuance, or on 25 January 2008.
Is this the first time that the Supreme Court issued a Circular of such nature?
No. Back in 2000 (Administrative Circular No. 12-2000, as clarified by Administrative Circular No. 13-2001), the Supreme Court provided for a similar rule of preference in the application of the penalties provided for in B.P. Blg. 22 (Bouncing Checks Law).
In issuing circulars of such nature, is the Supreme Court amending the law?
Some critics argue that the Supreme Court is, in effect, amending the law, referring to such act as “judicial legislation”. The Supreme Court, however, is merely interpreting the law. The law itself allows the judge to choose between the following penalties: (a) fine only; (b) imprisonment only; OR (c) both fine and imprisonment.