RTC dismisses libel case vs. Tribune publisher, columnist
posted 19-Oct-2019  ·  
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A six-year old libel case against a columnist and the publisher of the Catanduanes Tribune ended last week with its dismissal by the Regional Trial Court.

RTC Branch 42 Presiding Judge Genie G. Gapas-Agbada said in her six-decision promulgated Sept. 30, 2019 that the prosecution failed to prove the guilt of Tingnan Natin columnist Jose Pepito “Jex” Lucero and Tribune publisher Fernan Gianan in the case filed by then Provincial Board Member Edwin Tanael in 2013.

Tanael had claimed that in the Sept. 11, 2013 issue of the Tribune, Lucero wrote in his weekly column entitled “Praise the Lord… Hallelujah!” that the PBM had the biggest pork barrel among the Sangguniang Panlalawigan members and asked where the million-peso allocations for board members went.

The article, the PBM claimed, had the malicious intent of injuring and exposing him to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.

He alleged during his testimony that the article was directed against him as he was the only PBM named in the publication and that Lucero had an axe to grind against him as he (Tanael) had delivered a privilege speech at the SP denouncing the columnist’s practice of yellow journalism.

In his defense, Lucero denied having written defamatory remarks, saying that he merely posed questions relative to the official discharge of official duties of PBMs being public officials.

Gianan likewise claimed the charge had no basis because the remarks are deemed conditionally privileged communication, its publication only prompted by social and moral duty to inform the public on matters of general interest.

In ruling that there was no actual malice or ill will in the questioned publication, the Court noted that, except for the allegations in the complaint, the prosecution failed to present evidence that the accused acted with malice.

Tanael’s conjecture that the article was published with the end of libeling only him, as he was the only PBM mentioned in the article, was belied by his admission during cross-examination that the use of “sila” in the article referred to the all PBMs then and not only him, the Court pointed out.

“Mere conjecture that the publication was defamatory because of [the] privilege speech PBM Tanael made in the past denouncing accused Lucero’s practice of yellow journalism, alone and unsubstantiated, would not suffice to convict the accused for libel,” Judge Gapas-Agbada stated.

“Even if the defamatory statement is false, no liability can attach if it relates to official conduct, unless the public official concerned proved that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or not,” she added.

Even assuming that the contents of the articles are false, mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity alone does not prove actual malice, the Court said, citing a Supreme Court ruling.

“[T]he press should not be held on account to a point of suppression, for honest mistakes or imperfections in the choice of language. There must be some room for misstatements of facts as well as judgment,” it quoted the SC in Publishing Corp. vs, Noel, 167 SCRA 266. “Only by giving them much leeway and tolerance can they courageously and effectively function as critical agencies in our democracy.”

The case was initially heard by Judge Lelu P. Contreras but Tanael later moved for her inhibition from the case, with the Supreme Court later assigning in succession two more judges from Albay before Judge Gapas-Agbada reassumed her post. (With a report by Cris Eugene T. Gianan)

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