Thursday, February 20, 2014

Libel - G.R. No. 161032

See - G.R. No. 161032

"x x x.

Freedom of the Press v. Responsibility of the Press

          The Court has long respected the freedom of the press, and upheld the same when it came to commentaries made on public figures and matters of public interest.  Even in cases wherein the freedom of the press was given greater weight over the rights of individuals, the Court, however, has stressed that such freedom is not absolute and unbounded.  The exercise of this right or any right enshrined in the Bill of Rights, indeed, comes with an equal burden of responsible exercise of that right.  The recognition of a right is not free license for the one claiming it to run roughshod over the rights of others.

          The Journalist’s Code of Ethics adopted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippinesshows that the press recognizes that it has standards to follow in the exercise of press freedom; that this freedom carries duties and responsibilities.  Art. I of said code states that journalists “recognize the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly.”  Art. VIII states that journalists “shall presume persons accused of crime of being innocent until proven otherwise.”

          In the present case, it cannot be said that Tulfo followed the Journalist’s Code of Ethics and exercised his journalistic freedom responsibly.

           In his series of articles, he targeted one Atty. “Ding” So of the Bureau of Customs as being involved in criminal activities, and was using his public position for personal gain.  He went even further than that, and called Atty. So an embarrassment to his religion, saying “ikaw na yata ang pinakagago at magnanakaw sa miyembro nito.[26]  He accused Atty. So of stealing from the government with his alleged corrupt activities.[27]  And when Atty. So filed a libel suit against him, Tulfo wrote another article, challenging Atty. So, saying, “Nagalit itong tarantadong si Atty. Sodahil binabantayan ko siya at in-expose ang kagaguhan niya sa [Bureau of Customs].”[28]

          In his testimony, Tulfo admitted that he did not personally know Atty. So, and had neither met nor known him prior to the publication of the subject articles.  He also admitted that he did not conduct a more in-depth research of his allegations before he published them, and relied only on his source at the Bureau of Customs.

          In his defense before the trial court, Tulfo claimed knowledge of people using the names of others for personal gain, and even stated that he had been the victim of such a practice.  He argued then that it may have been someone else using the name of Atty. So for corrupt practices at the SouthHarbor, and this person was the target of his articles.  This argument weakens his case further, for even with the knowledge that he may be in error, even knowing of the possibility that someone else may have used Atty. So’s name, as Tulfo surmised, he made no effort to verify the information given by his source or even to ascertain the identity of the person he was accusing.

          The trial court found Tulfo’s accusations against Atty. So to be false, but Tulfo argues that the falsity of contents of articles does not affect their privileged character.  It may be that the falsity of the articles does not prove malice.  Neither did Borjal give journalists carte blanche with regard to their publications.  It cannot be said that a false article accusing a public figure would always be covered by the mantle of qualified privileged communication.  The portion of Borjal cited by Tulfo must be scrutinized further:

Even assuming that the contents of the articles are false, mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity alone does not prove actual malice.  Errors or misstatements are inevitable in any scheme of truly free expression and debate.   Consistent with good faith and reasonable care, the press should not be held to account, to a point of suppression, for honest mistakes or imperfections in the choice of language.  There must be some room for misstatement of fact as well as for misjudgment.  Only by giving them much leeway and tolerance can they courageously and effectively function as critical agencies in our democracy. In Bulletin Publishing Corp. v. Noel we held –

A newspaper especially one national in reach and coverage, should be free to report on events and developments in which the public has a legitimate interest with minimum fear of being hauled to court by one group or another on criminal or civil charges for libel, so long as the newspaper respects and keeps within the standards of morality and civility prevailing within the general community.

To avoid the self-censorship that would necessarily accompany strict liability for erroneous statements, rules governing liability for injury to reputation are required to allow an adequate margin of error by protecting some inaccuracies.  It is for the same reason that the New York Times doctrine requires that liability for defamation of a public official or public figure may not be imposed in the absence of proof of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the libelous statement.[29] (Emphasis supplied.)

          Reading more deeply into the case, the exercise of press freedom must be done “consistent with good faith and reasonable care.”  This was clearly abandoned by Tulfo when he wrote the subject articles.  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 may be allowed an adequate margin of error in the exercise of their profession, but this margin does not expand to cover every defamatory or injurious statement they may make in the furtherance of their profession, nor does this margin cover total abandonment of responsibility.

          Borjal may have expanded the protection of qualified privileged communication beyond the instances given in Art. 354 of the RPC, but this expansion does not cover Tulfo.  The addition to the instances of qualified privileged communications is reproduced as follows:
          To reiterate, fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in an action for libel or slander.  The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable.  In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition.  If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.[30] (Emphasis supplied.)

          The expansion speaks of “fair commentaries on matters of public interest.”  While Borjal places fair commentaries within the scope of qualified privileged communication, the mere fact that the subject of the article is a public figure or a matter of public interest does not automatically exclude the author from liability.  Borjal allows that for a discreditable imputation to a public official to be actionable, it must be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition.  As previously mentioned, the trial court found that the allegations against Atty. So were false and that Tulfo did not exert effort to verify the information before publishing his articles.      

          Tulfo offered no proof for his accusations.  He claimed to have a source in the Bureau of Customs and relied only on this source for his columns, but did no further research on his story.  The records of the case are bereft of any showing that Atty. So was indeed the villain Tulfo pictured him to be.  Tulfo’s articles related no specific details or acts committed to prove Atty. So was indeed a corrupt public official.  These columns were unsubstantiated attacks on Atty. So, and cannot be countenanced as being privileged simply because the target was a public official.  Although wider latitude is given to defamatory utterances against public officials in connection with or relevant to their performance of official duties, or against public officials in relation to matters of public interest involving them, such defamatory utterances do not automatically fall within the ambit of constitutionally protected speech.[31]  Journalists still bear the burden of writing responsibly when practicing their profession, even when writing about public figures or matters of public interest.  As held in In Re: Emil P. Jurado:       

            Surely it cannot be postulated that the law protects a journalist who deliberately prints lies or distorts the truth; or that a newsman may ecape liability who publishes derogatory or defamatory allegations against a person or entity, but recognizes no obligation bona fide to establish beforehand the factual basis of such imputations and refuses to submit proof thereof when challenged to do so.  It outrages all notions of fair play and due process, and reduces to uselessness all the injunctions of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics to allow a newsman, with all the potential of his profession to influence popular belief and shape public opinion, to make shameful and offensive charges destructive of personal or institutional honor and repute, and when called upon to justify the same, cavalierly beg off by claiming that to do so would compromise his sources and demanding acceptance of his word for the reliability of those sources.[32]

          The prosecution showed that Tulfo could present no proof of his allegations against Atty. So, only citing his one unnamed source.  It is not demanded of him that he name his source.  The confidentiality of sources and their importance to journalists are accepted and respected.  What cannot be accepted are journalists making no efforts to verify the information given by a source, and using that unverified information to throw wild accusations and besmirch the name of possibly an innocent person.  Journalists have a responsibility to report the truth, and in doing so must at least investigate their stories before publication, and be able to back up their stories with proof.  The rumors and gossips spread by unnamed sources are not truth.  Journalists are not storytellers or novelists who may just spin tales out of fevered imaginings, and pass them off as reality.  There must be some foundation to their reports; these reports must be warranted by facts.       

          Jurado also established that the journalist should exercise some degree of care even when writing about public officials.  The case stated:
            Clearly, the public interest involved in freedom of speech and the individual interest of judges (and for that matter, all other public officials) in the maintenance of private honor and reputation need to be accommodated one to the other.  And the point of adjustment or accommodation between these two legitimate interests is precisely found in the norm which requires those who, invoking freedom of speech, publish statements which are clearly defamatory to identifiable judges or other public officials to exercise bona fide care in ascertaining the truth of the statements they publish.  The norm does notrequire that a journalist guarantee the truth of what he says or publishes.  But the norm does prohibit thereckless disregard of private reputation by publishing or circulating defamatory statements without anybona fide effort to ascertain the truth thereof.  That this norm represents the generally accepted point of balance or adjustment between the two interests involved is clear from a consideration of both the pertinent civil law norms and the Code of Ethics adopted by the journalism profession in thePhilippines.[33]  

Tulfo has clearly failed in this regard.  His articles cannot even be considered as qualified privileged communication under the second paragraph of Art. 354 of the RPC which exempts from the presumption of malice “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 any statement, report, or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.”  This particular provision has several elements which must be present in order for the report to be exempt from the presumption of malice.  The provision can be dissected as follows:

In order that the publication of a report of an official proceeding may be considered privileged, the following conditions must exist:

(a)                That it is a fair and true report of a judicial, legislative, or other official proceedingswhich are not of confidential nature, or of a statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by a public officer in the exercise of his functions;
(b)               That it is made in good faith; and
(c)                That it is without any comments or remarks.[34]  

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, Atty. So, even calling him a disgrace to his religion and the legal profession.  As none of the elements of the second paragraph of Art. 354 of the RPC is present in Tulfo’s articles, it cannot thus be argued that they are qualified privileged communications under the RPC.

Breaking down the provision further, looking at the terms “fair” and “true,” Tulfo’s articles do not meet the standard.  “Fair” is defined as “having the qualities of impartiality and honesty.”[35] “True” is defined as “conformable to fact; correct; exact; actual; genuine; honest.”[36]  Tulfo failed to satisfy these requirements, as he did not do research before making his allegations, and it has been shown that these allegations were baseless.  The articles are not “fair and true reports,” but merely wild accusations.

Even assuming arguendo that the subject articles are covered by the shield of qualified privileged communication, this would still not protect Tulfo. 

In claiming that his articles were covered by qualified privileged communication, Tulfo argues that the presumption of malice in law under Art. 354 of the RPC is no longer present, placing upon the prosecution the burden of proving malice in fact.  He then argues that for him to be liable, there should have been evidence that he was motivated by ill will or spite in writing the subject articles. 

The test to be followed is that laid down in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,[37] and reiterated in Flor v. People, which should be to determine whether the defamatory statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.[38] 

The trial court found that Tulfo had in fact written and published the subject articles with reckless disregard of whether the same were false or not, as proven by the prosecution.  There was the finding that Tulfo failed to verify the information on which he based his writings, and that the defense presented no evidence to show that the accusations against Atty. So were true.  Tulfo cannot argue that because he did not know the subject, Atty. So, personally, there was no malice attendant in his articles.  The test laid down is the “reckless disregard” test, and Tulfo has failed to meet that test.

The fact that Tulfo published another article lambasting respondent Atty. So can be considered as further evidence of malice, as held in U.S. vs. Montalvo,[39] wherein publication after the commencement of an action was taken as further evidence of a malicious design to injure the victim. Tulfo did not relent nor did he pause to consider his actions, but went on to continue defaming respondent Atty. So.  This is a clear indication of his intent to malign Atty. So, no matter the cost, and is proof of malice. 
x x x."