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Appeals Court reverses decision on a libel case

(CMFR/IFEX) - Saying it would have "a devastating and catastrophic effect on the freedom of speech and of the press," on 28 August 2008 the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed its 18 March decision which upheld a guilty verdict for libel on the staff members of a defunct newspaper.

In its 10-page decision, the CA's Special Former 15th Division granted the petition filed by the staff members of the defunct newspaper "Manila Chronicle". The newspaper staff had asked the appellate court to reconsider its 18 March decision which upheld a 2002 Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) ruling ordering them to pay businessman Alfonso Yuchengco P101 million (approx. US$1.9 million in 2002) worth of damages and legal fees.

The appellants-respondents included The Manila Chronicle Publishing Corp., owner Robert Cuyuito Jr., and editors and reporters Neal Cruz, Ernesto Tolentino, Noel Cabrera, Thelma San Juan, Gerry Zaragosa, Donna Gatdula, Raul Valino, and Rodney Diola.

The "Manila Chronicle" filed a motion for reconsideration before the Court of Appeals questioning the 8 November 2002 decision of Makati RTC Branch 136 finding them guilty of libel. The libel case stemmed from a series of articles published in November and December 1994 in the paper, calling Yuchengco a "Marcos crony" and a "'corporate raider' who engaged in dubious financial transactions," the "Philippine Journalism Review" reported in its December 2002 issue.

In its 18 March decision penned by Associate Justice Agustin Dizon, the online news site GMANews.TV reported, the appellate court denied the "Manila Chronicle"'s motion for reconsideration, saying there was a "preponderance of evidence" to prove there was actual malice in the publication of the articles. It also said the newspaper failed to get Yuchengco's side, and that Cuyuito abused his power as chair and owner of the newspaper to publish defamatory reports against Yuchengco. Cuyuito and Yuchengco are both in the insurance business and were allegedly battling over the ownership of Oriental Petroleum and Mineral Resources Corp. at that time, GMANews.TV noted.

However, on 28 August, the CA's Special Former 15th Division said it found no actual malice in the articles. "The records are bereft of proof of actual malice on the part of the defendants-appellants for the imputations made in the subject articles," said the decision penned by Associate Justice Amelita Tolentino, as quoted by the newspaper "The Manila Times".

It also recognized that the previous decision put aside the appellants' arguments that the articles fell under privileged communication as stated in the Constitution and that its subjects are of public interest, the "Manila Times" reported. The "Manila Chronicle" reports involved publicly listed companies like the Benguet Corp., the Oriental Petroleum and Mineral Resources Corp., and the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., which are of great interest to the general public especially small investors, the "Manila Times" reported.

It further noted that the 18 March ruling neglected to note that Yuchengco is a public figure who has served in various government posts, the "Malaya" newspaper said. Yuchengco has been the presidential adviser on foreign affairs since January 2004.

The CA explained that this makes "good intention and justifiable motive" and truth acceptable defense, "Malaya" reported. "The interest of society and maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. Men in the public eye may suffer under the hostile and unjust accusation (but) the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience," the decision pointed out.

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