In his newspaper column, Manuel Quezon III recanted an earlier statement in order to avoid a libel suit. Several interesting legal questions arise.
Did Mr. Quezon have to recant?
Not if the complainant is a public figure and if the offending piece was lacking in actual malice.
Under the Public official or NY Times doctrine, honest criticisms on the conduct of public officials are insulated from libel judgments, and liability for defamation of a public official may not be imposed in the absence of proof of actual malice. i.e., with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. NY Times v Sullivan. The principle behind the doctrine is the protection given by the constitution to the right of free expression in a democracy. The doctrine takes away the presumption of malice from a libel case brought under the Penal Code.
In a landmark case, NY Times was held applicable where the complainant is deemed a “public figure” within the purview of the New York Times case (Borjal v CA, 1999, citing the definition of “public figure” in Ayers v. Capulong). In Mr. Quezon’s case, Father Intengan is a public figure, and the acts referred to in Mr. Quezon’s statements were matters of public interest.
A public figure has been defined as a person who, by his accomplishments, fame, or mode of living, or by adopting a profession or calling which gives the public a legitimate interest in his doings, his affairs, and his character, has become a ‘public personage.’ He is, in other words, a celebrity. Ayer v Capulong, as cited in Borjal v CA.
Actual malice is proved by evidence that the author had knowledge that the offending statement was false or was made with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. NY Times v Sullivan. In other words, honest opinion negatives actual malice, even if the offending statement is false. It may be strange but true that the general rule in libel is that truth is not a defense for the accused, but falsity (of the accused’s statements) is neither necessary nor sufficient to convict.
Can the manner of recantation be an admission against self-interest?
An accused may voluntarily make an admission. If the recantation states, in effect, that the author knew that his statement was false or made with reckless disregard for truth, it is an admission against self-interest, which is perfectly valid evidence. Of course, constitutional due process means that conviction does not lie only on such admission.
It appears that Mr. Quezon’s recantation does not make an admission against interest. He takes pains to claim his lack of malice. He states that it was “never his intention,” to “cause Father Intengan mental anguish and deep anxiety arising from the possible besmirching of his reputation.” Mr. Quezon, however, hints that perhaps he “can be rash.” On the face of it, being rash is not the same as having a reckless disregard for truth, but this seems to be a gray legal zone.
Does recantation obliterate the crime?
In the Philippines, recantation with formal apology is not in the statutes as a means of extinguishing criminal liability in a libel case. Of course, the apology may serve as evidence of good faith, which negatives actual malice. In a public-figure case, this is perhaps sufficient to acquit because, under the NY Times doctrine, malice is not presumed against the accused if the complainant is a public official or public figure. In a libel case set up as a criminal action, the accused must benefit from any reasonable doubt as to his guilt.
What if the recantation is imbued with bad faith?
It is also possible to “recant” through lip service. In other words, the person doing the recanting may be doing so only to avoid a libel suit. That person may however believe that he had not committed any libel at all, but recants anyway just to avoid the trouble of having to litigate. How can one have bad faith if he had not committed any crime in the first place? The readers (i.e., the public) can perhaps judge this issue for themselves, as can the offended party who may choose not to accept the apology.
Can a declaration of “anathema” really work?
Mr. Quezon declares that he asks anyone who has reproduced the offending statements relating to Fr. Intengan to “extirpate them wherever they have been reproduced; let them be anathema.” But in order to make the apology, one must point to the offending statement, if only so we are clear what the apology is all about. It seems that an “anathema” declaration is of little practical use, except perhaps for the purpose of propagating religious doctrines. (The dictionary defines “anathema” as a formal ecclesiastical ban.)