Malice in Wonderland
In a report by GMANews.TV, former DSWD (now DOH) Secretary Esperanza Cabral, through the National Bureau of Investigation, has filed a libel suit against a blogger named “Ella,” who exposed some irregularities and alleged hoarding activities of the DSWD, at the height of the Typhoon Ondoy and Pepeng relief efforts. On the one hand, some people believe that Cabral is right to sue Ella, if only because the practice of “exposing” irregularities and the expression of dissent and disagreement can sometimes be irresponsible. On the other hand, some people believe that the suit can set a precedent for the Government to muzzle the Internet.
Libel, as we all know, could – and should – be proven with one very important element: malice.
Malice is the exact opposite of one of the precepts that keep society orderly, harmonious, and civil: “do no harm.” Malice, at least in my view, is one of two things: 1) it is the deliberate intention to cause harm, and 2) it is to go about one’s gains recklessly such that harm is caused. A lot of criminality revolves around malice: causing harm, whether intentional or out of spite and recklessness, is to live in dishonor and not to give everyone his or her own due. That’s how dangerous malice is, and one reason why libel is difficult to prove.
Personally, I find it odd that in so many instances of outright malice already taking place on the Internet, where reputations of honorable Filipinos are defamed and insulted and mocked and scorned on a daily basis, this has to happen. A sitting member of the Cabinet takes a bunch of observations and pictures – all Ella could ever get given the context of the post and the limitations of what she can and what she’s supposed to do – and calls libel out on it. What was to be gained, and at the expense of what? If that is proven, then let justice take its course. Yet – and I hope this is not the case – if such a tactic is used to bully a blogger into submission, I think we owe it to ourselves to defend our rights, and be aware of where we are.
Bloggers are not journalists: unless you are one, or you append that role (implicitly or explicitly) to what you do. You are always limited by the information you have on hand, and often an opinion is based on that limited pool of information. You can never have “both sides of the story” given that limitation. A writer is obligated not to take “both sides of the story,” but to treat the information on hand objectively, to weigh them prudently, and to write about the topics as honestly as possible.
Ella had that much to work with, she posted her observations on her blog, and offered solutions to the problem. She expressed her discontent, her dissent, and her disappointment. Now she faces a very real accusation that could land her in jail for any proof that she deliberately or implicitly did it to hurt Cabral. The good Secretary, however, still enjoys the confidence and the favor of the State despite that supposedly “libelous” post.
Where is the harm, and if it exists, who is harmed? Caveat: there is no objective source of information. Caveat: all people have biases and information can never be completely neutral. Caveat: to write is already to choose.
I think that for Sec. Cabral to go beyond her press releases and statements, or to overlook the channels of new media to make her point clear, and to cry libel from her position as a member of the Cabinet, is not just and it is certainly not fair. Yet at the same time, I think that Ella should practice prudence and tact: that an honest opinion can always be phrased in a way that does not attract ire, but action and attention.
I’m not saying that bloggers who are motivated by malice should be exonerated under the guise of free speech. I’m not saying that malice does not exist in the Internet. I’m not saying that Ella is completely innocent. If Ella is wrong, she should apologize. If Sec. Cabral is wrong, she should apologize. We should all be prepared for the consequences of what we blog about, for so long as those consequences are fair, just, and proper. If there is no merit to the case – and my personal belief is there is none – then it should be junked.
New media is all about synergy and discussion. If Sec. Cabral understands that she can come to the defense of her reputation or the institution she represents by commenting on Ella’s blog (or sending her email, or telling her side of the story through a press release or whatever venue is available to her), then there wouldn’t be a need for her to use her position to force Ella to submission. Sec. Cabral already did, in news reports and releases from her office and her department. We were left to decide between Ella’s blog, or Sec. Cabral’s statement. Like everything in blogs, it was a word against another.
On the one hand, Ella’s tone may be laid into question. Then again, it matters where the lawsuit is coming from. Malice, in this case, comes from well within a wonderland. Overkill, so to speak.