Decriminalize libel

CMFR/PHILIPPINES – The Supreme Court of the Philippines on 16 September 2008 affirmed the guilty verdict on a 1999 libel case filed by a customs official against a columnist, three editors, and the publisher of a local tabloid. Libel is a criminal offense punishable with jail terms in the Philippines.

The Court’s Second Division denied on 16 September 2008 the petitions filed by columnist and broadcaster Erwin Tulfo, editors Susan Cambri, Rey Salao, Jocelyn Barlizo, and Carlo Publishing House Inc. president Philip Pichay asking for the reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals upholding their conviction for the libel case filed by lawyer Carlos So. So was an official of the Bureau of Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service at Manila ’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport .

So filed a libel case after Tulfo accused him of corruption and extortion several times in his “Direct Hit” column in the tabloid Remate in 1999.

On 17 November 2000, the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 112 found Tulfo, Cambri, Salao, Barlizo, and Pichay guilty of four counts of libel.

The group appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals.  But the Court  denied their appeal on 17 June 2003 as well as their motions for reconsideration on 11 December 2003. They then filed a petition for  review  before the Supreme Court.

Tulfo and the other defendants argued in their separate petitions that both the appellate court and the Pasay City RTC “erred” in their decision holding them liable of criminal libel. Tulfo argued that the RTC should have classified his articles under “qualified privileged communication” since So is a public official, while the editors and Pichay questioned their inclusion in the case.

The Supreme Court in its 31-page decision penned by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. explained the articles “cannot be considered as qualified privileged communication” since it did not meet the standard under the second paragraph of Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code.

“The articles clearly are not the fair and true reports contemplated by the provision. They provide no details of the acts committed by the subject, Atty. So. They are plain and simple baseless accusations, backed up by the word of one unnamed source. Good faith is lacking, as Tulfo failed to substantiate or even attempt to verify his story before publication. Tulfo goes even further to attack the character of the subject…even calling him a disgrace to his religion and the legal profession,” the decision said.

The Court also said that “(t)his is no case of mere error or honest mistake, but a case of a journalist abdicating his responsibility to verify his story and instead misinforming the public.”

Journalists are “reporters of facts, not fiction, and must be able to back up their stories with solid research. The power of the press and the corresponding duty to exercise that power judiciously cannot be understated,” the decision said.

However, the Court amended the earlier penalties imposed by the Pasay City RTC on the defendants. The RTC had earlier ordered the defendants to pay P800,000 in actual damages, P1 million in moral damages, and an additional P500,000 in exemplary damages. They were also sentenced to serve six months to four years and two months in prison for each count of libel.

“Though we find petitioners guilty of the crime charged, the punishment must still be tempered with justice…. Freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press may not be unrestrained, but neither reined in too harshly. In light of this, considering the necessity of a free press balanced with the necessity of a responsible press, the penalty of a fine of P6,000 for each count of libel, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, should suffice.”

It said that the provision for actual damages has no basis. “There was no showing of any pecuniary loss suffered by the complainant Atty. So. Without proof of actual loss that can be measured, the award of actual damages cannot stand.” The fine for exemplary damages is also “not justified,” it added.

Another petition denied

The  Court also denied in September 2008 the petition filed by Philippine Daily Inquirer’s publisher Isagani Yambot, editor in chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, and correspondents Teddy Molina and Juliet Pascual to stop the Vigan RTC from hearing a libel case filed against them by lawyer Raymundo Armovit in 1996. Vigan is approximately 336 kms from Manila and is the capital of Ilocos Sur.

The libel charges stemmed from articles published in the Inquirer implying that Armovit hid his client Rolito Go when he escaped during his trial for the killing of a student. Go was later convicted.

The Inquirer reported that Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual had earlier petitioned for the withdrawal of the libel charges after the regional state prosecutor overturned the earlier indictment by the Ilocos Sur provincial prosecutor in 1997. But Vigan RTC Branch 21 judge Francisco Ranches – and later the appellate court – ruled that there was probable cause for the filing of the libel charges.

Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual brought their case before the Supreme Court saying that the Vigan RTC “should have deferred to the regional state prosecutor’s finding that no prima facie case for libel exists,” GMANews.TV reported.

The Court’s Third Division upheld in September 2008 the appellate court’s decision saying the Vigan RTC has the right to “grant or deny at its option a motion to dismiss or withdraw information based on its own assessment of the records of the preliminary investigation submitted to it, in the faithful exercise of judicial discretion and prerogative, and not out of subservience to the prosecutor,” GMANews.TV reported.

The Court also said it could not act on the other issues raised by Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual. “The other arguments adduced by the petitioners—that the news reports are not defamatory, are privileged in character and constitutionally protected—are all matters of defense which can be properly ventilated during the trial,” the Inquirer said, quoting the decision.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has called for the decriminalization of libel since the early ‘90s. The Manila broadsheet BusinessWorld reports that the Senate is “crafting a bill that seeks to distinguish libel against a private person and a public officer.”

The bill amending Articles 354 and 361 of the Revised Penal Code will “scrap the fine of imprisonment only for political libel,” Senator Richard J. Gordon, chair of the committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws, told BusinessWorld.
“If a politician is attacked, presumption of malice is no longer there. Malice should now be proven by the prosecution, ” he explained.


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