Filipino court unlikely to recognize Facebook libel

Lawsuit involving damaging status updates made on social networking site won't go far in court because Philippines has no Internet libel law, says lawyer.

MANILA--A test case on "Internet libel", which arose out of damaging status updates made by a local lawyer in social networking site Facebook, is unlikely to see fruition in court, a legal observer said.

The controversial suit was filed by celebrity doctor Vicky Belo, against Argee Guevarra, the legal counsel of one of Belo's former patients who accused her of performing a botched butt augmentation procedure years ago.

The case has stirred interest in the local IT and entertainment sectors because the Internet-based libel charge is said to be the first in the world where the complainant does not belong to the defendant's Facebook friends list.

A previous Facebook libel case was said to be have been filed in the United Kingdom, where businessman Mathew Firsht sued a former schoolmate over a false personal profile on the site that included private information about Firsht and untrue allegations about his sexual orientation.

In the local case, Belo's general manager--who was added to Guevarra's network of 1,472 friends--spotted the alleged libelous Facebook comments. The celebrity doctor built her fortune by signing endorsement deals with local celebrities to market her company, Belo Medical Group (BMG), which specializes in cosmetics surgery.

Guevarra, through his legal counsel J.V. Bautista, issued a statement to the media saying he welcomed the libel suit. He said he does not regret calling for a boycott of Belo clinics via his Facebook updates where he also referred to Belo as "Reyna ng Kaplastikan, Reyna ng Kapalpakan", or translated as "Queen of False Pretenses, Queen of Incompetence".

According to a report in local news daily The Philippine Star, Belo's representatives said Guevarra should resolve the issue in court instead of staging a trial in public. "[To date], Guevarra has not filed any case with the courts of law against the Belo Medical Group (BMG), which is the proper procedure as it will allow all parties to present their side. In fact, at the hearing of the libel case, Guevarra did not even attend the preliminary investigation and has opted instead to make statements to the press," Adel Tamano, BMG's lawyer, was quoted in the report.

Libel only if printed
ZDNet Asia spoke with a lawyer, specializing in intellectual property, who expressed doubt that the case would even advance past the preliminary stage conducted by the city prosecutor of Taytay in Rizal province.

There is no law on Internet libel in the Philippines, where libel suits must involve defamatory statements that are made in print, said the lawyer, who declined to be named. "In a criminal case such as libel, the law is normally skewed toward the accused who, in this case, has the legal maxim of reasonable doubt on his side," he explained.

Bautista also scoffed at the libel suit. "[It] needs a serious facelift before it could even be dignified in any court of law. The pleading itself reads and looks like a failed surgery on the laws of libel," he said, in the media statement.

He noted that libelous statements were also printed and published by Belo's own general manager. "[This] should make said general manager a co-respondent of Guevarra. In effect, Dr. Belo should be suing her own general manager."

The lawyer also noted that an analogous libel case involving another blog had been dismissed by the Department of Justice, which ruled Internet-based libel does not exist.

Guevarra, an activist lawyer and former newspaper columnist, said he is seeking to defend himself all the way to the Supreme Court in order to elicit jurisprudence regarding Internet-based libels.

In response to the libel suit, he posted another update on his Facebook profile which stated: "A wannabe mortician masquerading as a cosmetic surgeon will never be able to stitch up the difference between formalin or botox, between free speech or slander when suing for libel a Facebook user for his shout outs and status updates. Such surgical stupidity results in mistaking Facebook for Erasebook."

Melvin G. Calimag is a freelance IT writer based in the Philippines.

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