Saturday, February 9, 2008

Libel



RULE OF PREFERENCE IN PENALTIES FOR LIBEL

By:

Atty. Manuel J. Laserna Jr.

LCM Law, Las Pinas City, Philippines

Tel/Fax 8742530

lcmlaw@gmail.com

February 8, 2008

In ADMINISTRATIVE CIRCULAR No. 08-2008, issued on January 25, 2008 (GUIDELINES IN THE OBSERVANCE OF A RULE OF PREFERENCE IN THE IMPOSITION OF PENALTIES IN LIBEL CASES), and which took effect on the same date, the Philippine Supreme Court urged all courts and judges to take note of the rule of preference on the matter of the imposition of penalties for the crime of libel, i.e., fine instead of imprisonment, bearing in mind the following principles:

  1. The administrative circular “does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime libel” under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code;

  1. The Judges concerned may, “in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case”, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the “interests of justice” or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would “depreciate the seriousness of the offense, “work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperative of justice”;

  1. Should only a fine be imposed and the accused be unable to pay the fine, there is no legal obstacle to the application of the Revised Penal Code provision on “subsidiary imprisonment”.

  1. Under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, the penalty for libel is “prision correctional in its minimum and medium periods or fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party”.

In the following cases, the Supreme Court opted to impose only a fine on the person convicted of the crime of libel:

  1. In Fernando Sazon v. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, 325 Phil. 1053, 1068 (1996), the Court modified the penalty imposed upon petitioner, an officer of a homeowners’ association, for the crime of libel from imprisonment and fine in the amount of P200.00, to fine only of P3,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, for the reason that he wrote the libelous article merely to defend his honor against the malicious messages that earlier circulated around the subdivision, which he thought was the handiwork of the private complainant.

  1. In Quirico Mari v. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, 388 Phil. 269, 279 (2000), where the crime involved is slander by deed, the Court modified the penalty imposed on the petitioner, an ordinary government employee, from imprisonment to fine of P1,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, on the ground that the latter committed the offense in the heat of anger and in reaction to a perceived provocation.

  1. In Roberto Brillante v. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, G.R. Nos. 118757 & 121571, November 11, 2005, 474 SCRA 480, the Court deleted the penalty of imprisonment imposed upon petitioner, a local politician, but maintained the penalty of fine of P4,0000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, in each of the (5) cases of libel, on the ground that the intensely feverish passions evoked during the election period in 1988 must have agitated petitioner into writing his open letter; and that incomplete privileged communication should be appreciated in favor of petitioner, especially considering the wide latitude traditionally given to defamatory utterances against public officials in connection with or relevant to their performance of official duties or against public figures in relation to matters of public interest involving them.

  1. In Jose Alemania Buatis, Jr. v. People of the Philippines and Atty. Jose Pieraz, G.R. No. 142509, March 24, 2006, 485 SCRA 275, the Court opted to impose upon petitioner, a lawyer, the penalty of fine only for the crime of libel considering that it was his first offense and he was motivated purely by his belief that he was merely exercising a civic or moral duty to his client when wrote the defamatory letter to private complainant.

A summary of the above-cited cases is presented below, for purposes of legal research on the felony of libel and related crimes.

Fernando Sazon v. Court of Appeals

and People of the Philippines,

325 Phil. 1053, 1068 (1996)

Petitioner Fernando Sazon and private complainant Abdon Reyes were both residents of the PML Homes in East Drive, Parang Marikina, Metro Manila. They were likewise members of the PML-Parang Bagong Lipunan Community Association, Inc. (PML-BLCA), an association of homeowners of PML Homes. The association had a monthly newsletter, the PML-Homemaker, of which the petitioner was the editor.

On December 11, 1983, the PML-BLCA held an election for the members of its board of directors. Among those who ran in the election were the private complainant and the petitioner. The petitioner was elected as a director. He was likewise elected by the new board as president of the homeowners’ association. The private complainant lost in said election.

Unable to accept defeat, the private complainant, on January 16, 1984, wrote a letter to the Estate Management Office of the Home Financing Corporation (EMO-HFC) protesting the election of the petitioner as a director and president of the homeowners’ association. He alleged that the election was a nullity because of: (1) the lack of authority of the petitioner to call for such an election; (2) the absence of a quorum; and (3) lack of the required notice to the homeowners.

On January 18, 1984, the private complainant wrote his co-homeowners explaining to them his election protest and urging them not to recognize the petitioner and the other members who won in the election.

Meanwhile, in response to the election protest, the EMO-HFC ordered the PML-BLCA to conduct a referendum to be supervised by the EMO-HFC. The private complainant then notified his co-homeowners about this development and requested them to attend a general meeting with the representatives of the EMO-HFC which was to be held before the referendum.

Soon after the general meeting, several copies of a leaflet called the “PML Scoop” were received by the homeowners. The leaflet was entitled “Supalpal si Sazon,” obviously referring to the affirmative action taken by the EMO-HFC in connection with the private respondent’s election protest. At about the same time, the phrase “Sazon, nasaan ang pondo ng simbahan?” was seen boldly written on the walls near the entrance gate of the subdivision. There was no proof, however, as to who was responsible for these writings.

Thinking that only private complainant was capable of these acts, petitioner Sazon started writing, publishing, and circulating newsletters to his co-homeowners, culminating in the appearance in the February 10, 1984 issue of the PML-Homemakers of the following article:

“USAPAN NG BOARD v. ABDON NAG-COLLAPSE SA ESTATE MANAGEMENT OFFICE

Dala ng mahigpit na pakiusap ng Estate Management Office (EMO) na gawin ang lahat na nararapat upang magkaroon ng katahimikan at pagkakaisa ang mga tiga PML Homes, ang Board Secretary, Mr. Pacis at President F.R. Sazon ay nagpaunlak na pagbigyan ang kahilingan ng ating kasama na si Abdon Reyes.

Ang kahilingan: Anyayahan ang EMO-HFC na magconduct ng Plebiscite or Referendum para sa possibility ng isa pang halalan ng Board of Directors.

Sa meeting na dinaluhan ni Abdon Reyes na nagdala ng isang cameraman at may kasamang pagyayabang at kaunting panggolpe de gulat (na tila baga puro tanga yata ang akala niya sa mga kausap), ipinipilit pa rin nitong ang Board sa PML Parang ay binubuo pa rin nuong mga taong inilukluk ng developer na nag 1-2-3.

Halos pag-pupukpukin ng bag ng mga kababaihang nagsisama sa miting ang ating pobreng super kulit na walang pakialam sa mga taga atin.

Ang mga nagsipagbigay suporta sa Pangulo at Board Secretary ay sina Gng. Cavarosa, Gng. Triffie Ladisla, Gng. Nitz Rodriguez at Dra. Sazon.

Kung di dahil sa pakiusap nina Messr’rs. ABNER PACAIGUE at HOMER AGNOTE, kasama na ng Board Secretary at Pangulo, malamang ay nagulpi sana ang mandurugas.

Dahil sa patuloy na kabulastugan ni Abdon, ang meeting na ginaganap sa EMO kaninang umaga ay nag-collapse nang malaman na may ikinalat na liham ang mandurugas, na nagsasabing di umano ay hindi tutoo ang ibinabalita ng ‘Homemaker’ na siya ay turned-down sa HFC.

Matagal na po tayong niloloko ng magkasamang Abdon at Evangeline Lopez. Dahil sa tagal ay alam na tuloy natin kung papaanong maipapatigil ang kanilang kabulastugan.

Sila rin ang mastermind sa paninirang pun sa Pangulo sa pamamagitan ng pag-susulat ng panira sa mga pader natin. Diumano’y itinatanong daw nila kung saan dinala ang pondo ng simbahan. Bakit hindi sila tumungo sa kinauukulan: Treasurer, Auditor, at iba pang officials.

UPHELD PO ANG ATING BOARD, ITO AY MABUBUWAG LANG KUNG INYONG NANAISIN.

Mag-iingat po tayo sa panlilinlang ng mga taong gaya ni Abdon at Vangie.

UNITED WE STAND DIVIDED WE FALL LET’S UNITE AND FIGHT EVIL!!!

F. R. SAZON - Editor”

Aggrieved by the aforequoted article, the private complainant initiated the necessary complaint against the petitioner, and on May 25, 1984, an Information was filed before the trial court charging the petitioner with libel.

On March 18, 1992, the trial court rendered its decision finding the petitioner guilty of the crime charged, and accordingly sentenced him to suffer imprisonment of FOUR (4) months and ONE (1) day of arresto mayor as minimum to TWO (2) years, FOUR (4) months and ONE (1) day of prision correccional as maximum, with the accessory penalties provided by law, and to pay a fine of P200.00 in accordance with Art. 353, in relation to Art. 355 of the Revised Penal Code.

The petitioner appealed said decision to the Court of Appeals. On June 19, 1995, the appellate court dismissed the appeal and affirmed the decision of the trial court.

In his petition for review before the Supreme Court, the principal issue posited was whether or not the questioned article written by the petitioner is libelous. The Court ruled in the affirmative. It thus affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals “with the modification that, in lieu of imprisonment and fine, the penalty to be imposed upon the petitioner shall be a fine of Three Thousand (P3,000.00) PESOS with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency”.

Under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code, libel is “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, on to blacken the memory of one who is dead.” For an imputation then to be libelous, the following requisites must concur: “(a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable.”

The Court rejected the arguments of the petitioner (a) that the word “mandurugas” and other words and phrases used in the questioned article did not impute to private complainant any crime, vice or defect which would be injurious or damaging to his name and reputation and (b) that the descriptive words and phrases used should be considered as mere epithets which are a form of “non-actionable opinion”, because while they may express petitioner’s strong emotional feelings of dislike, they do not mean to reflect adversely on private complainant’s reputation.

The Court held that in libel cases, the question is “not what the writer of an alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean”. The defamatory character of the words used by the petitioner were shown by the very recitals thereof in the questioned article: “mandurugas,” “mag-ingat sa panlilinlang,” “matagal na tayong niloloko,” “may kasamang pagyayabang,” “ang ating pobreng super kulit,” “patuloy na kabulastugan,” “mastermind sa paninirang puri,” etc.

The Court stated that “words calculated to induce suspicion are sometimes more effective to destroy reputation than false charges directly made. Ironical and metaphorical language is a favored vehicle for slander”. A charge is sufficient if the words are calculated to induce the hearers to suppose and understand that the person or persons against whom they were uttered were guilty of certain offenses, or are sufficient to impeach their honesty, virtue, or reputation, or to hold the person or persons up to public ridicule.

Branding private complainant Reyes “mandurugas,” et al. most certainly exposed him to public contempt and ridicule, because it imputed upon the private complainant “a condition that is dishonorable and shameful, since they tend to describe him as a swindler and/or a deceiver.”

Further, the Court was not persuaded by the argument of the petitioner that there was no malice in this case, that the prosecution had failed to present evidence demonstrating that the accused was prompted by personal ill-will or spite or that he did not act in response to duty but acted merely to cause harm to private complainant, and that the prosecution had failed to discharge its burden of proving malice on the part of the accused beyond all reasonable doubt.

The Court stated that the general rule laid down in Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code provides that “every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown ”. Prescinding from this provision, when the imputation is defamatory, as in this case, “the prosecution need not prove malice on the part of the defendant (malice in fact), for the law already presumes that the defendant’s imputation is malicious (malice in law)”. The burden is on the side of the defendant “to show good intention and justifiable motive in order to overcome the legal inference of malice”. Unfortunately, petitioner miserably failed to discharge this burden, the Court said.

The petitioner invoked the defense of “privileged communication” under Article 354: (a) “a private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty”; and, (b) a fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.”

Petitioner averred that he wrote the article not to malign the private complainant, but merely to correct the misinformation being circulated by Reyes and some quarters within the community about the petitioner and the association he heads. He did it therefore, in response to some moral, social or civic duty as he was at that time the President of their homeowners’ association and editor of its newsletter. Hence, the article falls under the first exception of Article 354.

In rejecting the aforesaid argument, the Court held that although as a rule, it is the right and duty of a citizen to make a complaint of any misconduct on the pant of public officials, which comes to his notice, to those charged with supervision over them, “such complaints should be addressed solely to some official having jurisdiction to inquire into the charges, or power to redress the grievance or has some duty to perform or interest in connection therewith.” In the instant case, none of the homeowners for whom the newsletter was published was vested with the power of supervision over the private complainant or the authority to investigate the charges made against the latter. Moreover, a written letter containing libelous matter cannot be classified as privileged when it is published and circulated among the public, as what the petitioner did in this case.

The Court further held that “defamatory remarks and comments on the conduct or acts of public officers which are related to the discharge of their official duties will not constitute libel if the defendant proves the truth of the imputation”. But “any attack upon the private character of the public officer on matters which are not related to the discharge of their official functions may constitute libel”, citing exception number two (2) of Article 354 which refers to “any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.” The Court held that the petitioner’s article had no reference whatsoever to the performance of private complainant’s position as a public relations consultant in the Department of Trade and Industry. The article attacked solely the private character of the complainant and delved on matters completely unrelated to his official functions. It cannot therefore fall under the protective coverage of privileged communication.

According to the Court, even assuming, ex gratia argumenti, that petitioner’s article qualifies under the category of privileged communication, this does not still negate the presence of malice in the instant case. The existence of malice in fact may be “shown by extrinsic evidence that the defendant bore a grudge against the offended party, or that there was rivalry or ill-feeling between them which existed at the date of the publication of the defamatory imputation or that the defendant had an intention to injure the reputation of the offended party as shown by the words used and the circumstances attending the publication of the defamatory imputation”. The circumstances under which the subject article was published by the petitioner buttressed the inference that petitioner was animated solely by revenge towards the private complainant on account of the leaflet entitled “Supalpal si Sazon,’ earlier circulated among the homeowners as well as the writings near the entrance gate of the subdivision, all of which petitioner believed to be the handiwork of the private complainant. Furthermore, the words used in the questioned article were mostly uncalled for, strongly sending the message that petitioner’s objective was merely to malign and injure the reputation of the private complainant. This was certainly indicative of malice in fact on the part of the petitioner.

Quirico Mari v. Court of Appeals

and People of the Philippines,

388 Phil. 269, 279 (2000),

This is an appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeals convicting the petitioner Quirico Mari for the offense of serious slander by deed and imposing a modified penalty of one (1) month and one (1) day of arresto mayor, as minimum, to two (2) years and four (4) months of prision correctional, as maximum.

The Supreme Court found the petitioner guilty beyond reasonable doubt of serious slander by deed defined under Article 359 of the Revised Penal Code but instead sentenced him to pay a fine of P1,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency.

The facts of the case showed that complainant Norma Capintoy and petitioner Quirico Mari were co-employees in the Department of Agriculture, with office at Digos, Davao del Sur, although complainant occupied a higher position. On December 6, 1991, petitioner borrowed from complainant the records of his 201 file. However, when he returned the same three days later, complainant noticed that several papers were missing which included official communications from the Civil Service Commission and Regional Office, Department of Agriculture, and a copy of the complaint by the Rural Bank of Digos against petitioner. Upon instruction of her superior officer, Honorio Lumain, complainant sent a memorandum to petitioner asking him to explain why his 201 file was returned with missing documents. Instead of acknowledging receipt of the memorandum, petitioner confronted complainant and angrily shouted at her: "Putang ina, bullshit, bugo." He banged a chair in front of complainant and choked her. With the intervention of the security guard, petitioner was prevailed upon to desist from further injuring complainant.

On January 7, 1992, complainant filed with the Municipal Trial Court, Digos, Davao del Sur a criminal complaint against petitioner for slander by deed. After trial, on September 22, 1994, the Municipal Trial Court, Digos, Davao del Sur rendered decision finding the accused guilty of the offense charged and sentenced the accused to five (5) months and eleven (11) days to two (2) years, eleven (11) months and eleven (11) days and to pay private complainant the amount of FIVE THOUSAND (P5,000.00) PESOS as moral damages, FIVE THOUSAND (P5,000.00) PESOS attorney’s fees and to reimburse her the cost of suit.

In due time, petitioner appealed to the Regional Trial Court. After due proceedings, on December 1, 1995, the Regional Trial Court, Davao del Sur, Digos, rendered decision adopting the trial court's findings of fact, and affirming the appealed decision in toto. On June 18, 1996, petitioner filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for review. On December 9, 1996, the Court of Appeals rendered decision affirming the judgment a quo convicting petitioner of serious slander by deed, but modifying the penalty to an indeterminate sentence of one (1) month and one (1) day of arresto mayor, as minimum, to two (2) years and four (4) months of prision correccional, as maximum.

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Court of Appeals erred in sustaining the conviction of petitioner for serious slander. The petitioner assailed the trial court's finding that petitioner shouted invectives at complainant in the presence of several persons and then choked her. Petitioner submitted that the prosecution had failed to prove that he choked the complainant; that the choking was an after-thought as shown by inconsistencies in the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses.

To these arguments, the Supreme Court, offhand, held that the issue raised was factual, which would bar it from reviewing the same in an appeal via certiorari, citing Maglaque vs. Planters Development Bank, 307 SCRA 156, 161 [1999], citing Guerrero vs. Court of Appeals, 285 SCRA 670 [1998]; Rongavilla vs. Court of Appeals, 294 SCRA 289 [1998]; Cristobal vs. Court of Appeals, 291 SCRA 122 [1998]; Sarmiento vs. Court of Appeals, 291 SCRA 656 [1998]. It held that the findings of fact of the Court of Appeals supported by substantial evidence are conclusive and binding on the parties and are not reviewable by this Court, unless the case falls under any of the exceptions to the rule, such as diverse factual findings of the lower courts, or unless the findings are entirely grounded on speculations, citing Atillo III vs. Court of Appeals, 266 SCRA 596 [1997]; Don Orestes Romualdez Electric Cooperative, Inc. vs. NLRC, G.R. No. 128389, November 25, 1999] Cebu Shipyard and Engineering Works, Inc. vs. William Lines, Inc., 306 SCRA 762, 774-775 [1999]; Fuentes vs. Court of Appeals, 268 SCRA 703 [1997], Yobido vs. Court of Appeals, 281 SCRA 1 [1997], Philippine Deposit Insurance Corporation vs. Court of Appeals, 283 SCRA 462 [1997].] Rivera vs. Court of Appeals, 348 Phil. 734, 743 [1998].]

The Court took the opportunity to discuss the errors of the lower courts in the application of the Indeterminate Sentence Law, citing People vs. Ducosin, 59 Phil. 109 [1933]; Bacar vs. de Guzman, 271 SCRA 328, 340 [1997]; People vs. Feloteo, 290 SCRA 627, 636-637 [1998], Barrameda vs. Court of Appeals, G. R. No. 96428, September 2, 1999; People vs. Gabres, 335 Phil. 242, 256-257 [1997]; People vs. Cesar, 131 Phil. 121, 125-126 [1968]; Jacobo vs. Court of Appeals, 337 Phil. 7, 23 [1997]; de la Cruz vs. Court of Appeals, 265 SCRA 299 [1996]; Quinto vs. People, G. R. No. 126712, April 14, 1999]; People vs. Onate, 78 SCRA 43 [1977]; People vs. Ducosin, 59 Phil. 109, 116-118 [1933]; People vs. Gonzales, 73 Phil. 549, 552 [1942].

At any rate, the Court held that it would serve the ends of justice better if the petitioner were sentenced to pay a fine instead of imprisonment. The offense while considered serious slander by deed was “done in the heat of anger” [Pader vs. People, G. R. No. 139157, February 8, 2000.] and was “in reaction to a perceived provocation”. The penalty for serious slander by deed may be either imprisonment or a fine [Article 359, Revised Penal Code.]. The Court opted to impose a fine.

Roberto Brillante v. Court of Appeals

and People of the Philippines,

G.R. Nos. 118757 & 121571,

November 11, 2005, 474 SCRA 480

This treats of the Motion for Reconsideration dated November 25, 2004 filed by Roberto Brillante (Brillante) assailing the Decision of the Court dated October 19, 2004 which affirmed his conviction for the crime of libel but reduced the amount of moral damages he was liable to pay.

Brillante averred that his conviction, without the corresponding conviction of the writers, editors and owners of the newspapers on which the libelous materials were published, violates his right to equal protection. He also claimed that he should have been convicted only of one count of libel because private respondents were not defamed separately as each publication was impelled by a single criminal intent. Finally, he claimed that there was a “semblance of truth” to the accusations he had hurled at private respondents citing several instances of alleged violent acts committed by the latter against his person.

Private respondent (Makati City Mayor) Jejomar Binay filed a Comment dated March 3, 2005, maintaining that the equal protection clause does not apply because there are substantial distinctions between Brillante and his co-accused warranting dissimilar treatment. Moreover, contrary to Brillante’s claim that he should have been convicted only of one count of libel, Binay asserted that there can be as many convictions for libel as there are persons defamed. Besides, this matter should have been raised at the time the separate complaints were filed against him and not in this motion.

As correctly noted by the OSG, the basic issues raised in the instant motion have already been thoroughly discussed and passed upon by the Court in its Decision. For this reason, the Court no longer dwelt on them.

The Court, however, believed that the penalty of imprisonment imposed against Brillante should be re-examined and reconsidered. According to the Court, although this matter was “neither raised” in Brillante’s petition nor in the instant motion, it adverted to the well-established rule that “an appeal in a criminal proceeding throws the whole case open for review of all its aspects, including those not raised by the parties”.

The Court deleted the penalty of imprisonment and retained the penalty of fine against Brillante, citing Mari v. Court of Appeals,388 Phil. 269, 279 (2000), where the petitioner therein was found guilty of slander by deed penalized under Art. 359 of the Revised Penal Code (Penal Code). Under the said provision, the penalty was either imprisonment or fine. In the said case, in view of the fact that the offense was “done in the heat of anger and in reaction to a perceived provocation”, the Court opted to impose the penalty of fine instead of imprisonment.

In this case, Brillante claims that on January 6, 1988, his friend’s house was bombed resulting in the death of three people. This incident allegedly impelled him, out of moral and social duty, to call a press conference on January 7, 1988 with the intention of exposing what he believed were terrorist acts committed by private respondents against the electorate of Makati City.

The Court held that the circumstances surrounding the writing of the open letter on which the libelous publications were based similarly warranted the imposition of the penalty of fine only, instead of both imprisonment and fine, in accordance with Art. 355 of the Penal Code. “The intensely feverish passions evoked during the election period in 1988 must have agitated petitioner into writing his open letter”, the Court added.

The Court further held that while petitioner had failed to prove all the elements of qualified privileged communication under par. 1, Art. 354 of the Penal Code, “incomplete privilege should be appreciated” in his favor, especially considering the “wide latitude traditionally given to defamatory utterances against public officials in connection with or relevant to their performance of official duties or against public figures in relation to matters of public interest involving them”.

Jose Alemania Buatis, Jr. v. People of the Philippines

and Atty. Jose Pieraz, G.R. No. 142509, March 24, 2006,

485 SCRA 275

Jose Alemania Buatis, Jr. (petitioner) sought to set aside the Decision dated January 18, 2000 of the Court of Appeals (CA) which affirmed the decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Pasig City, convicting him of the crime of libel.

The trial court sentenced Buatis “to Four (4) Months and One (1) Day, as minimum, to Two (2) Years, Eleven (11) Months and Ten (10) Days, as maximum; to indemnify the offended party in the amount of P20,000.00, by way of compensatory damages; the amount of P10,000.00, as and for moral damages, and another amount of P10,000.00, for exemplary damages; to suffer all accessory penalties provided for by law; and, to pay the costs”.

The Supreme Court affirmed, with modifications, the decision of the trial court and the Court of Appeals by imposing a fine of P6,000.00 with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency and deleting the award of compensatory damages.

The facts of the case are summarized below.

On August 18, 1995, the wife of private-complainant Atty. Jose J. Pieraz retrieved a letter from their mailbox addressed to her husband. The letter was “open, not contained in an envelope”, and Atty. Pieraz’ wife put it on her husband’s desk. On that same day, Atty. Pieraz came upon the letter and made out its content:

DON HERMOGENES RODRIGUEZ Y REYES ESTATE

Office of the Asst. Court Administrator

No. 1063 Kamias St., Bgy. Manggahan, Pasig City,

Metro Manila

August 18, 1995

ATTY. JOSE J. PIERAZ

Counsel for Benjamin A. Monroy

#8 Quirino St., Life Homes Subdivision

Rosario , Pasig City, Metro Manila

Subject: Anent your letter dated August 18, 1995

addressed to one Mrs. Teresita Quingco

Atty. Pieraz:

This has reference to your lousy but inutile threatening letter dated August 18, 1995, addressed to our client; using carabao English.

May we remind you that any attempt on your part to continue harassing the person of Mrs. Teresita Quingco of No. 1582 Mngo St., Bgy. Manggahan, Pasig City, Metro Manila---undersigned much to his regrets shall be constrained/compelled to file the necessary complaint for disbarment against you.

You may proceed then with your stupidity and suffer the full consequence of the law. Needless for you to cite specific provisions of the Revised Penal Code, as the same is irrelevant to the present case. As a matter of fact, the same shall be used by no other than the person of Mrs. Quingco in filing administrative charge against you and all persons behind these nefarious activities.

Finally, it is a welcome opportunity for the undersigned to face you squarely in any courts of justice, so as we can prove “who is who” once and for all.

Trusting that you are properly inform (sic) regarding these matters, I remain.

Yours in Satan name;

(Signed)

JOSE ALEMANIA BUATIS, JR.

Atty-in- Fact of the present

Court Administrator of the entire

Intestate Estate of Don Hermogenes

Rodriguez Y. Reyes.

Copy furnished: All concerned.

Not personally knowing who the sender was, Atty. Pieraz, nevertheless, responded and sent a communication by registered mail to said Buatis, Jr., accused-appellant. In reply, Buatis, Jr. dispatched a second letter dated August 24, 1995 to Atty. Pieraz.

Reacting to the insulting words used by Buatis, Jr., particularly: “Satan, senile, stupid, [E]nglish carabao,” Atty. Pieraz filed a complaint for libel against accused-appellant. Subject letter and its contents came to the knowledge not only of his wife but of his children as well and they all chided him telling him: “Ginagawa ka lang gago dito.” Aside from the monetary expenses he incurred as a result of the filing of the instant case, Atty Pieraz’ frail health was likewise affected and aggravated by the letter of accused-appellant.

As preliminary points, the court cited Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code which defines libel as “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead”. The Court added that for an imputation to be libelous, “the following requisites must concur: (a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable”.

In libel, “publication” means making the defamatory matter, after it is written, known to someone other than the person against whom it has been written. Petitioner’s subject letter-reply itself states that the same was copy furnished to all concerned. Also, petitioner had dictated the letter to his secretary. “It is enough that the author of the libel complained of has communicated it to a third person”, the Court stated. Furthermore, the letter, when found in the mailbox, “was open, not contained in an envelope thus, open to public.”

The victim of the libelous letter was identifiable as the subject letter-reply was addressed to respondent himself.

The Court ruled that in determining whether a statement is defamatory, “the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them, unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense”. Citing Tawney vs. Simonson, Whitcomb & Hurley Co. (109 Minn., 341), the Court held that: “In determining whether the specified matter is libelous per se, two rules of construction are conspicuously applicable: (1) That construction must be adopted which will give to the matter such a meaning as is natural and obvious in the plain and ordinary sense in which the public would naturally understand what was uttered. (2) The published matter alleged to be libelous must be construed as a whole.”

Gauging from the above–mentioned tests, the words used in the letter dated August 18, 1995 sent by petitioner to respondent is defamatory. In using words such as “lousy”, “inutile”, “carabao English”, “stupidity”, and “satan, the letter, as it was written, casts aspersion on the character, integrity and reputation of respondent as a lawyer which exposed him to ridicule. No evidence aliunde need be adduced to prove it. As the CA said, these very words of petitioner have caused respondent to public ridicule as even his own family have told him: “Ginagawa ka lang gago dito.”

Any of the imputations covered by Article 353 is defamatory; and, under the general rule laid down in Article 354, “every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown”. Thus, when the imputation is defamatory, “the prosecution need not prove malice on the part of petitioner (malice in fact), for the law already presumes that petitioner’s imputation is malicious (malice in law)”.

The Court was not persuaded by the argument of the petitioner that his letter was a private communication made in the performance of his “moral and social duty as the attorney-in-fact of the administrator of the Rodriguez estate” where Mrs. Quingco is a recognized tenant and to whom respondent had written the demand letter to vacate, thus in the nature of a privileged communication and not libelous.

Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code provides “every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown”, except in the following cases: “(1) a private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral, or social duty; and (2) a fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative, or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report, or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions”.

The presumption of malice is done away with when the defamatory imputation is a qualified privileged communication. The Court stated that in order to prove that a statement falls within the purview of a qualified privileged communication under Article 354, No. 1, as claimed by petitioner, the following requisites must concur: (1) the person who made the communication had a legal, moral, or social duty to make the communication, or at least, had an interest to protect, which interest may either be his own or of the one to whom it is made; (2) the communication is addressed to an officer or a board, or superior, having some interest or duty in the matter, and who has the power to furnish the protection sought; and (3) the statements in the communication are made in good faith and without malice.

The Court stated that while it would appear that the letter was written by petitioner out of his social duty to a member of the association which he heads, and was written to respondent as a reply to the latter’s demand letter sent to a member, however, a reading of the subject letter-reply addressed to respondent does not show any explanation concerning the status of Mrs. Quingco and why she is entitled to the premises as against the claim of respondent’s client. The letter merely contained insulting words, i.e, “lousy” and “inutile letter using carabao English”, “stupidity”, and “satan”, which are totally irrelevant to his defense of Mrs. Quingco’s right over the premises. The words as written had only the effect of maligning respondent’s integrity as a lawyer, a lawyer who had served as legal officer in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for so many years until his retirement and afterwards as consultant of the same agency and also a notary public. The letter was crafted in an injurious way than what is necessary in answering a demand letter which exposed respondent to public ridicule thus negating good faith and showing malicious intent on petitioner’s part.

Moreover, the Court said, the law requires that for a defamatory imputation made out of a legal, moral or social duty to be privileged, “such statement must be communicated only to the person or persons who have some interest or duty in the matter alleged, and who have the power to furnish the protection sought by the author of the statement”. A written letter containing libelous matter cannot be classified as privileged “when it is published and circulated among the public”, the Court added. In this case, petitioner admitted that he dictated the letter to one of her secretaries who typed the same and made a print out of the computer. While petitioner addressed the reply-letter to respondent, the same letter showed that it was copy furnished to all concerned. His lack of selectivity is indicative of malice and is anathema to his claim of privileged communication. Such publication had already created upon the minds of the readers a circumstance which brought discredit and shame to respondent’s reputation.

The Court held that since the letter is not a privileged communication, “malice is presumed” under Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code. The presumption was not successfully rebutted by petitioner as discussed above.

The courts are given the discretion to choose whether to impose a single penalty or conjunctive penalties; that is, whether to impose a penalty of fine, or a penalty of imprisonment only, or a penalty of both fine and imprisonment.

Applying by analogy the provisions of Administrative Circular No. 12-2000 and Administrative Circular 13-2001 which modified Administrative Circular No. 12-2000, which laid down a rule of preference in the application of the penalties provided for in B.P. 22, in favor of a fine in lieu of imprisonment, the Court, in the instant case, noted that this was petitioner’s first offense of this nature. He never knew respondent prior to the demand letter sent by the latter to Mrs. Quingco who then sought his assistance thereto. He appealed from the decision of the RTC and the CA in his belief that he was merely exercising a civil or moral duty in writing the letter to private complainant. In fact, petitioner could have applied for probation to evade prison term but he did not do so believing that he did not commit a crime thus, he appealed his case. We believe that the State is concerned not only in the imperative necessity of protecting the social organization against the criminal acts of destructive individuals but also in “redeeming the individual for economic usefulness and other social ends”. Consequently, he Court deleted the prison sentence imposed on petitioner and instead imposed a fine of six thousand pesos.

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