By: Alex P. Vidal
“If you call your opponent a politician, it’s grounds for libel.” – Mark Russell
I HAVE been charged with libel and ordered arrested in the past, but, luckily, I wasn’t home when the arresting officers came to “fetch” me.
Since libel is a criminal case in the Philippines, it’s a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the cops to put a cuff on the accused while he is being brought behind bars.
Thank God I missed the metal bracelets in all the warrants of arrest issued for the 38 counts of libel filed by the plaintiff, “The People of the Philippines,” against me, our late former Sun.Star Iloilo Daily publisher, Marcos “Mark” Villalon, and columnist Wenceslao “Mat” Mateo way back in 1999, or 20 years ago.
If my memory serves me right, when I learned that the first warrant of arrest had been issued by the RTC Branch 25 on a Friday, my sore eyes infection was starting to develop, thus I decided to quitely spend a night at Bahay Kubo, a rented hut in Calumpang, Molo, Iloilo City.
A police mugshot of yours truly would have yielded two awful but “beautiful red eyes.”
We beat to the draw all the impending warrants of arrest by immediately posting a bail after being tipped off by the Good Samaritans inside the Hall of Justice.
What happened to former Iloilo provincial administrator Manuel “Boy” Mejorada last Friday (June 7) evening should serve as a warning to all those charged with a criminal case: avoid being arrested on a Friday.
If an accused is arrested end of the regular week after office hours, he has no more chance to post a bail in court for his temporary freedom.
He will have to spend at least three nights and two days in jail while waiting for Monday during office hours.
In 1993, veteran Panay News columnists Herbert Vego and the late Teddy Sumaray chose to spend overnight “as a matter of principle” inside the Iloilo City Police Office detention cell rather than posting a bail of P10,000 each for the libel case filed by the late lawyer Fraulin Penasales. Friends and the late PN publisher Danny Fajardo helped “avert” another harrowing night in the calaboose for the two bespectacled senior editors.
In libel cases, the showdown vis-à-vis the prosecution panel during the actual trial of the case doesn’t scare us practicing journalists; it even excites us, modesty aside, like nominees in the Oscar Awards.
We believe that libel – the crime of destroying a person’s reputation by publicity – is hard to prove under the Philippine laws because it requires the presence of all four elements: malice, publication, defamation, and identification.
What’s unsettling if we get caught by arresting police on Friday is the prospect of being harassed and bullied, and having to sleep beside the hardened criminals and notorious fiends inside a crowded detention cell.
Mejorada, for his part, had high blood pressure during the arrest thus he was brought to the St. Paul’s Hospital instead of being detained in the police station.
Had Mejorada known Police Major Jonathan Pinuela of the Provincial Special Operations Group (PSOG) and his team were on their way to serve the warrant of arrest against him in his residence at Parc Regency Subdivision in Brgy. Balabag, Pavia, Iloilo at 6:20 in the evening, he would have probably spent overnight in another place to avoid being cornered.
The warrant of arrest was for the five counts of violation of Republic Act 10175 or Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 issued by Judge Victorino Maniba Jr. Of the RTC branch 39 dated June 4, 2019.
The trial court ordered the arrest after Prosecutor II Ma. Nazelle A. Biliran-Infante found probable cause in the complaint filed by Iloilo Governor Arthur Defensor Sr.
If Mejorada was able to elude the arresting team that Friday evening, the police would be compelled to come back on Monday and turn him over to the court that issued the warrant of arrest if they got lucky to get him.
I am not privy to the cases Governor Defensor filed against Mejorada.
I have covered the governor in the past – when he nearly became senator in 1987 landing 26th with 7,865,702 votes or 99,000 votes shy of 24th placer Juan Ponce Enrile’s 7,964,966 votes; when he first became governor in 1992 defeating Perla Zulueta overwhelmingly; and when he nipped fellow former Assemblyman Niel Tupas Sr. by more or less 10,000 votes in the 1998 gubernatorial elections.
This is the first time I heard he filed a case against a member of the press; in this case against a former editor who became active in helping some candidates in the recent and past elections.
I must admit Governor Defensor is one of the only few public officials in the province I personally admire (along with the late Governor Tupas, former Vice Governor Roberto “Obet” Armada, board member Demy Sonza, and the late former board member Vicente “Bugoy” Molejona) even when he was assemblyman in the 1984 Batasang Pambansa.
He reads both the national and local papers, including the opinion page. If he sensed a certain inaccuracy in the opinion article, he would personally call an opinion writer to correct it.
As a journalist, my heart, at the same time, goes out to Mejorada, a former editor like me in the defunct Sun.Star Iloilo Daily and former president of the Iloilo Press and Radio Club (IPRC) in 1990, where I had the privilege to also serve as director.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo)