Published 8 March 2021, The Daily Tribune

Reputation is as much a cherished right as other rights, such as life, liberty or property.  The sad reality is that a good reputation takes decades, immeasurable hard work, and lots of goodwill to build, but it only takes one defamatory utterance to destroy the same.

Because words are formidable weapons against a cherished right, our criminal laws punish defamation to allow the victim redress for the wrong suffered.

Oral Defamation or more commonly known as “slander” is basically libel committed verbally, instead of in writing. The key factor is whether the speech tends to harm one’s reputation, office, trade, business or means of livelihood. There must be an imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, status or circumstances. It must be made orally, and it must be public, meaning, within hearing distance of another person. There is no need for it to be addressed to a broad audience.  It is made maliciously, directed to a natural or juridical person, or one who is dead.

Oral defamation may either be simple or grave. In the case of De Leon vs. People (G.R. No. 212623, January 11, 2016,) the accused called the police officer “walanghiya,” “mayabang” and “mangongotong” in public.

 In deciding that it was a case of simple and not grave slander, the following were considered: first, relationship of the parties. They were not strangers to one another and accused had no reason to harbor ill feelings toward complainant. Second is the issue of timing. The utterance  was made during the first hearing on an administrative case involving the parties, shortly after an alleged gun-pointing incident between them, hence there was an element of emotional outburst on the part of accused. Third is the issue of animosity. From the foregoing, it can be gleaned that the accused’s utterance may be construed as his expression of dismay and not necessarily to ridicule or humiliate complainant.

Equally true,  the court does not shy away from qualifying slander to a grave one if the defamatory utterances are insulting and serious in nature. For instance, the court ruled that there was grave oral defamation and not mere slight oral defamation where petitioner disregarded the respect due  to the complainant due to the latter’s age and status. She was 61 years old and has been a public school teacher for the past 32 years. With the gravity of the utterances made and taking into account these factors, it cannot be reduced to simple slander even with the claim that the slanderous words were said in the heat of anger (Ramos vs. People, November 20, 2017, G.R. No. 226454). The court also took into account that the the slanderous words were uttered with evident intent to “strike deep into the character of the victim.”

If a defamatory statement is considered grave oral defamation, the maximum penalty provided under the Revised Penal Code is imposed. The penalty imposed by Article 358 is arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period.

To my mind, the court ultimately looks at defamation cases from a holistic perspective, taking into account human nature, psychology, and generally acceptable emotional responses – and rightfully so. After all, the law was not created out of a vacuum but were culled from human experience and therefore its application is rooted in our common experiences and common sense. Hence, in some cases, even though there are defamatory utterances involved, the court imposed the less harsh sentence by classifying the crime as mere simple slander.

When defamatory words are uttered to attack one’s reputation, there is also a liability on the part of the accused to restitute the complainant for damages, such as moral damages, exemplary damages, and attorney’s fees where properly proven. It is up to the subject to vindicate his or her reputation by seeking legal redress. Ultimately, as the Scripture says, a good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold (Proverbs 22:1).

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