How to avoid libel suits on Facebook

Posted at 01/05/2010 9:23 PM | Updated as of 01/07/2010 9:34 PM
Krista Ranillo was the subject of allegedly "libelous" statements made by actress and director Gina Alajar in her Facebook account.

MANILA, Philippines - Veteran actress Gina Alajar got more trouble than she bargained for when she posted a controversial shoutout on her Facebook page late last year.

Alajar made negative comments against actress Krista Ranillo, who was then rumored to be having an affair with boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.

Alajar's Facebook post was so juicy, especially in light of reports that Ranillo caused Alajar's breakup with husband Mike de Mesa, that it was quoted in full by numerous blog sites, TV shows, online news sites, tabloids, newspapers and social networking pages.

In a press statement issued days later, the Ranillo family cried foul.

The family's legal counsel Atty. Tonisito Umali hinted that libel suits could be filed against media and Alajar.

"Pinag-aaralan kong mabuti kung ano ang pananagutan ni Ms. Gina Alajar (I am studying carefully what Gina Alajar is liable for)... very, very defamatory. Very, very libelous," Umali said.

No libel suits from the Ranillos have been reported, as of posting time.

Pages are open rooms

In an interview on celebrity show "Startalk", Alajar said in her defense that her Facebook comments were meant to be kept private.

One of her Facebook contacts, Alajar said, had broadcast her comments without her knowledge.

"Hindi ko naman ipapakalandakan 'yon (Facebook comments) diba?," she told Startalk. "I didn't put it in a media or showbiz website... because I put that in my private account."

"And...all my friends on Facebook also believe that your page is your own page. You can say whatever you want there," Alajar added.

THE ELEMENTS OF LIBEL

1. Defamatory imputation - that lowers the esteem, honor or respect that a person is regarded

2. Publicity - must be seen or known by a third person, other than whom the libelous statement is addressed

3. Identification - the person libeled must be identified

4. Malice - if there is no good intention or justified motive for the defamatory statement. Reckless disregard for the truth.

Such is the mistake that many social networking users make when posting content on their pages, said Atty. Jose Jesus "JJ" Disini Jr., a cyber law expert.

Most users, he said, think that all speech made on their pages are private and do not have legal consequences simply because "it is only directed at a few people."

"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," said Disini, a University of the Philippines law professor.

In fact, in a 1958 court case (People vs. Silvela), the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that an unsealed envelope containing libelous statements constituted libel.

Just the potential of someone reading the contents of the envelope was enough to constitute publication under libel.

"I think if the SC has set the bar of publication so low, then certainly when you publish something libelous on Facebook, you're liable," he said.

Belo sues for libel

The Alajar-Ranillo issue was not the first Facebook controversy.

In September 2009, Belo Medical Group (BMG) owner Dr. Vicki Belo sued lawyer Atty. Argee Guevarra, who posted "slanderous" statements on his Facebook page.

Guevarra's shoutouts, viewable to some 2,000 of his Facebook friends, alleged that Belo and many BMG doctors are not real cosmetic surgeons and thus pose dangers to patients.

In a press statement, Guevarra "welcomed" the libel suit as "an opportunity to invite public attention to the hazards and dangers of cosmetic surgery clinics."

Guevarra represents butt job patient Josefina Norcio in a damages suit against BMG doctors.

Guevarra's counsel, Atty. JV Bautista, argued that the case was improperly laid at the Taytay Prosecutor Office instead of Makati City where Facebook holds office.

Bautista also said in a press statement that a BMG General Manager had republished and re-printed the "libelous" statements, in effect committing libel herself.

Finally, he argued that Facebook posts constitute privileged speech (types of speech that are protected and considered exempt from libel).

Think before you hyperlink

Dr. Vicki Belo sued a local lawyer over what she and the Belo Medical Group thought were libelous statements on Facebook.

Disini said Guevarra's camp is correct on one point: that BMG's General Manager had committed libel by republishing the alleged libelous statements.

"The same goes for anyone else on the Facebook who 'cut and pasted' a libelous statement and republished it. You yourself commit libel," Disini said.

Users who create a hyperlink to a libelous statement are also committing libel.

Those who "like" or merely state an opinion on Facebook's comments box in response to a libelous statement, meanwhile, are not.

"You're not republishing, you're merely stating your opinion. Unless you say something libelous yourself in the comments section, you're safe," Disini said.

As for the proper venue to file libel suits, Disini said a complainant can technically file anywhere.

"There is U.S. case law that what you are protecting in libel suits is your reputation. And the crime is committed where your reputation resides. Another way of looking at it is that the place where it was published is where the crime was committed," Disini said.

"Since the published content can be accessed anywhere, that means that you can technically choose anywhere [to file]," he said.

Disini believes Guevarra's best defense in the libel suit is to argue that Belo, as a public or quasi-public figure, cannot be the subject of a libel suit unless it is proven that the writer had defamed her with malice.

"The case is interesting because it's the first time somebody's been sued [for Facebook libel in the Philippines]," Disini said. "It's so interesting to see what comes out."

Facebook also liable?

FACEBOOK DEFAMATION SUITS IN THE WORLD

There have been a few Facebook libel cases recorded worldwide.

United Kingdom. In July 2008, British businessman Matthew Firsht filed the world's first known Facebook defamation suit against his former school friend, Grant Raphael.

Raphael created a bogus Facebook group called "Has Matthew Firsht lied to you?..." where he alleged that Firsht was gay and lied about owing money.

The page was online for 16 days before it was taken down.

A few weeks later, Firsht won the libel suit and was awarded a total of 22,000 pounds in libel damages and breach of privacy.

According to a BBC News report, the case showed how "everything posted online has its consequences."

United Arab Emirates. In November 2009, a Dubai misdemeanors court handled what is was reported to be the country's first Facebook libel suit, filed by a Lebanese man against his Syrian ex-partner.

UAE news site Gulfnews.com reported that the Syrian had posted photos of the complainant on Facebook, adding "libelous comments" underneath that claimed the Lebanese man had stolen $3.81-million (Dh1.4-million) to open a restaurant.

The defendant admitted in his statement that he defamed his Lebanese ex-partner out of anger.

The judge reportedly adjourned the court proceedings until the defendant's lawyers present their side.

Could Facebook also be held liable for libelous content published in their website?

The site's inability to police all content posted on Facebook can be its saving grace.

The Electronic Commerce Law (Republic Act 8792) states that a service provider is not liable as long as long as it "does not have actual knowledge, or is not aware of the facts and circumstances" from which unlawful material is published, distributed or disseminated.

"Therefore, the only way to hold them liable is when you ask them to take it down. And when they refuse to take it down, then it appears that they agree with the statement," explained Disini.

Disini was the principal drafter of the implementing rules and regulations of the E-Commerce Act of 2000.

"By allowing content to remain, it's as if they have adopted the libelous statement," he said.

On the rise

Disini said cases of internet slander or libel are increasing, just as naturally as the internet "arena" is growing.

"It's like asking, 'Would there be more vehicular accidents if there are more cars on the road? Of course, the more people are out there interacting online, then the more common these cases will become," he said.

Internet libel, like ordinary cases of libel, are different based on the mode of publication.

Though there is no explicit law covering internet libel, Disini said the existing law of libel is enough.

Disini said there are rules on internet conduct-- like Netiquette, the Bloggers' Code of Ethics, or a social networking site's terms and conditions-- but internet users have the option not to follow them.

"One of the difficult things about libel is that it can be read in a very expansive way. Therefore, you have to be more careful that something you're saying which is negative against the person might be interpreted by that person as libel," he said.

"So in a situation where the law is not clear, you have to be careful," Disini said. Report by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.