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Tabloid columnist, editors and publisher face libel charges; court denies petition filed by newspaper staff

(CMFR/IFEX) - On 16 September 2008, the Philippines Supreme Court upheld 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 offence punishable with jail terms in the Philippines.

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

So filed the 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 on four counts of libel.

The group appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals. However, the Court of Appeals 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 the decisions that held them liable for criminal libel. Tulfo argued that the RTC should have classified his articles under "qualified privileged communication" since So was 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 that the articles "cannot be considered as qualified privileged communication" since they do 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, Attorney 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 "[this] 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 on the defendants by the Pasay City RTC. The RTC had ordered the defendants to pay P800,000 (approx. US$17,200) in actual damages, P1 million (approx. US$21,500) in moral damages, and an additional P500,000 (approx. US$10,750) 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 [the] petitioners guilty of the crime [as] 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 [should they be] 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 (approx. US$130) for each count of libel, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, should suffice."

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

In a separate case, in September 2008, the Supreme Court also denied a petition filed by the publisher of the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" newspaper, Isagani Yambot, along with 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 in 1996 by lawyer Raymundo Armovit. Vigan is located approximately 336 kilometres from Manila and is the capital of Ilocos Sur province.

The libel charges stemmed from articles published in the newspaper 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 "Philippine Daily Inquirer" reported that Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina and Pascual had earlier requested the withdrawal of the libel charges after the regional state prosecutor overturned an earlier indictment by the Ilocos Sur provincial prosecutor in 1997. However, the 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," the GMANews.TV website reported.

In September, the Supreme Court's Third Division upheld 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 "Philippine Daily Inquirer" said, quoting the decision.

CMFR has called for the decriminalization of libel since the early 1990s. The Manila-based broadsheet "BusinessWorld" has reported that the Senate is "crafting a bill that seeks to distinguish [between] 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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