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libel

Pasig court throws out libel suit by bank against Dagupan’s Sunday Punch

Dear media friends, please see below our media release on a libel case we have successfully defended. Kindly refer to the attached 5-page copy of the court’s order dismissing the case.

Media Release from CenterLaw
For reference : Professor H. Harry L. Roque, Jr. 09175398096 and Atty. Romel R. Bagares, 09328798422

The Pasig City Regional Trial Court has dismissed a two-count libel suit filed by a publicly-listed thrift bank Citystate Savings against the entire staff of the multi-awarded Dagupan City-based Sunday Punch newsweekly, having found no probable cause to try the case.

“There being no malice in the subject articles, a reasonably discreet and prudent person would find it difficult to charge the accused for libel,” said Branch 167 presiding judge Rolando G. Mislang in his five-page order dated August 27, 2014.

The suit arose from two articles published last year by the Sunday Punch in its print and online issues for August 25-31 and September 1-7 detailing the Pasig City-based bank’s alleged use of public funds to pay for the electricity consumption of one of its branches in the city.

The articles – vigorously disputed by the bank for allegedly being false – were based on comments made by an officer of the local electric cooperative and Dagupan City mayor Belen Fernandez herself. Both officials did not retract their statements even after the filing of the libel suit against the Sunday Punch, a pioneering community paper that has won many journalism awards over the years.

But as the judge could not find probable cause against eight Sunday Punch editorial staff members – namely, editor-in-chief and publisher Ermin Garcia Jr., associate editor Marifi Jara, contributing editor Jun Velasco, correspondents Jesus A. Garcia and Johanne R. Macob, online administrator Julie Ann Arrogante, production manager Jocelyn F. De La Cruz, and cartoonist Virgilio Biagtan – he granted their motion for judicial determination of probable cause and recalled arrest warrants issued against them.

Lawyers for the newsweekly – Attorneys Harry Roque, Romel Regalado Bagares and Zharmai Garcia of the Center for International Law – had argued for the application to the case of the public figure exception in Philippine jurisprudence on libel, which requires a complainant who is a public figure to prove “actual malice” in the allegedly libelous article.

The actual malice standard provides that any falsity in a news report is not liable for liable unless the public figure concerned proves that the report was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

Professor Harry L. Roque Jr., Chair of Centerlaw that defended the Sunday Punch, hailed the dismissal as a triumph for freedom of expression and stated that, “The dismissal recognizes that a discussion on how public property is managed is imbued with the public interest”.

Judge Mislang agreed with the Sunday Punch’s lawyers.

“The two articles in question merely referred to or quoted the statements of officials, thus establishing the fact that the accused did not write the articles and publish them with reckless disregard for truth,” wrote the judge in his order.

He brushed aside the argument made by the bank’s counsel — lawyer Ferdinand Topacio — that the actual malice standard should not apply to it as it is not a public figure, saying that Citystate after all “operates a business that is imbued with public interest.”

Citystate is a bank owned by investors led by Mr. Antonio Cabangon-Chua, who also owns interests in print, broadcast and television outfits, among them the Business Mirror newspaper, Aliw Broadcasting Network AM Radio Station DWIZ, Solar Television Network and Radio Philippines Network.

The judge said: “[c]learly, private complainant Citystate failed to prove not only that the charges made by accused in the subject articles were false but also that accused made them with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.”

Judge Mislang also took issue with Citystate’s wholesale filing of the libel suits against the entire staff of the Sunday Punch. Noting that it was the paper’s editor-in-chief who took responsibility for the articles in question, he said that the bank failed “to specify how each of [the other Accused] could have actively participated in the publication of the subject articles.”

The Office of the City Prosecutor earlier dismissed the bank’s libel complaints. However, it reinstated the case on the latter’s motion for reconsideration and filed two counts of libel against the Sunday Punch news staff with the regional trial court.

-30-

Click here for a copy of the ORDER PP v E Garcia

Re-examining freedom of expression

I have been the foremost advocate for freedom of expression, at least in the legal profession. I have always said that this freedom is ever important for it enables us to know the truth. It also enables us to form opinions, which taken collectively, have been proven in fiscalizing governments. For instance, we now know that the PDAF and DAP were never intended to benefit our people. They have been intended and used to further enrich our corrupt officials. If anything, the investigative work of journalists on PDAF and DAP has shown how crucial a vibrant press is in informing our people and in keeping our government in line.

But I have had to re-examine my advocacy for freedom of expression recently. This is because have had to reckon with the ugly side of the terrain: irresponsible journalism.

Note that days after my fellow private prosecutor in the Maguindanao massacre case, Nena Santos, claimed that Department of Justice officials were purportedly accepting bribes from the accused, the witness, Lakmudin Saliao, who, even if purportedly under the government’s Witness Protection Program, is actually under the custody of Governor Toto Mangudadatu; spoke to media, This was obviously arranged by Nena Santos herself. Purportedly the “smoking gun” to prove her allegations of bribery, Saliao then related that when he was still under the employ of the Ampatuans, he gave Atty Sigfrid Fortun the amount of P50 million, 20 million of which was to be paid to Undersecretary Francisco Baraan, and the balance of P30 million to be paid to the rest of the public prosecutors.

In the mind of Santos, this disclosure proved that Baraan was indeed on the take. The only problem was that Saliao, as one of the government’s star witnesses in the Ampatuan trial itself, was testifying on matters which occurred in 2009 and 2010 prior to the PNoy administration. Baraan only joined government as part of the PNoy administration. Hence, contrary to what Saliao is saying, Baraan could not have received P20 million since he was not yet in government at the time of the alleged payoff.

So when Ces Orena-Drilon came to my temporary office in the UP College of Law to show me a PDF file of an alleged diary listing personalities which she concluded were lists of individuals having received money form the Ampatuans, my remark to her was: “Ces, you’re the only one who still believes Nena Santos.” It was at that juncture that Ces then said that her informant was different from Nena Santos although she admitted that she met this informant through Nena Santos. Nena would later lie on national televisions and say that she does not know the informant.

I even explained to her that Nena was obviously on the warpath after she was found lying. But Ces was persistent. She then showed me an entry of a phone number, which corresponded to mine -next to the word “speedy”. Another entry had the notation “Speedy 10 M and a car”.

Asked for my reaction, I first explained that the since the diary was provided by an informant who did not prepare the diary, the same was not authenticated. I then said that while the number corresponds to my cell phone, my number is a very public number since it appears in all my press releases, my blog and FB entries, I do not know any “speedy” and do not know why it appears next to my number.

But lo and behold, in the newscast for that evening, it was reported that I received P10 million and a car since I was using the alias “Speedy”.

I am sure that those who know me will not believe this allegation. How do you explain the fact that unlike Nena Santos who has not presented a single witness in the Ampatuan prosecution, we have not only been active in presenting our witnesses (about 35) in the massacre case itself but have field 23 other actions against the Ampatuans? This included the plunder case against the Ampatuans, actions to freeze their assets with the Anti-Money Laundering Council, a separate civil case against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her complicity in the murder, separate criminal charges against the military officials in the area and international remedies for the victims. And unlike Nena Santos and Prima Quinsayas who are paid for their services, we have been doing our work against the Ampatuans on a pro-bono basis. It is strange that I – who have been working for free in these cases for five long years -was the one maligned as having received money from the same individuals who have in turn, sued me at least 14 times either in the form of contempt petitions or libel in their turf of Cotabato City.

Today, I am in the process of re-examining my advocacy for freedom of expression. I represent today the most number of journalists accused of libel and other families of journalists who have been killed and have not been accorded domestic remedies for their murders. We also continue our advocacy to decriminalize libel. But when a very senior journalist, a graduate of the same state university where I am a full professor, resorts to abuse of the right to a free press, one cannot wonder now if my lifelong passion in defending this freedom is indeed a noble pursuit.

I continue to dwell on it.

This post first appeared in http://manilastandardtoday.com/2014/08/14/re-examining-freedom-of-expression/

High court on libel: Lost in overbreadth

The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of libel under the Revised Penal Code and under Section 4 C (4) of the cybercrime prevention law but declaring the crimes of aiding and abetting cyberlibel unconstitutional are contradictory rulings, which can only be because of the court’s misappreciation of the doctrine of “overbreadth.”

There is overbreadth where the language of a statute that proscribes speech is so broadly tailored that it could encompass even protected speech.

Its application has been recognized in Philippine jurisprudence in the case of Estrada v. Desierto: “When statutes regulate or proscribe speech and  x x x the transcendent value to all society of constitutionally protected expression  x x x justify allowing attacks on overly broad statutes (Broadrick v. Oklahoma).

In this same case, “a court’s first task is to determine whether the enactment reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct. Those that make unlawful a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct may be held facially invalid.”

Courts in the United States have struck down criminal statutes in at least half of the states in the union because first, only falsities made knowing they were false or in utter disregard of its truth should be actionable. This was the ruling of the court in the seminal case of New York Times v. Sullivan.

We have incorporated Sullivan in our jurisprudence in Borjal v. CA and Guingging v. CA. The rationale for this is that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and … may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

In Garrison v. Louisiana, the court ruled that a definition of actual malice including ill will and hatred would still inhibit public debate on public issues: “Even where the utterance is false, the  x x Constitution  x x x preclude attaching adverse consequences to any except the knowing or reckless falsehood …. even if he did speak out of hatred, utterances honestly believed contribute to the free interchange of ideas and the ascertainment of truth.”

Under the foregoing rulings, criminal libel was struck down in the United States because as worded, it would encompass at least two types of protected speech:

First, false statements regarding public figures made without knowledge or recklessness outside of fair and true report of any act performed by public officials in the exercise of their functions; and second, true statements regarding public figures not covered by qualified privilege.

 

In Disini Jr. v. The Secretary of Justice, the Supreme Court upheld criminal libel on the basis that in its latest pronouncement on libel involving Cristy Fermin, the court found that “verily, not only was there malice in law, the article being malicious in itself, but there was also malice in fact, as there was motive to talk ill against complainants.”

Perhaps, unknown to the court, this was precisely why criminal malice suffers from overbreadth because it defines malice as including ill will and not just knowledge of falsity or in utter disregard thereof.

And yet, despite its ruling that criminal libel is constitutional, it held aiding and abetting libel as unconstitutional because of overbreadth: The terms “aiding or abetting” constitute [a] broad sweep that generates [a] chilling effect on those who express themselves through cyberspace posts, comments and other messages.

Hence, Section 5 of the cybercrime prevention law that punishes aiding or abetting libel on the cyberspace is a nullity.

Apparently, the court applied overbreadth where it is uncertain as to who should be held liable for aiding and abetting criminal libel but not for those who will actually be accused of libel using the wrong definition of malice in fact.

There is no basis for this distinction given that facial challenges on overbreadth are allowed precisely because of our constitutional commitment to freedom of expression as a means of ascertaining the truth and the value of a free marketplace of ideas in a democracy.

To say that only an uncertainty of who may be accused of aiding and abetting cyberlibel will lead to a chilling of rights is absurd. As held in Garrison: “Debate on public issues will be inhibited if the speaker must run the risk that it will be proved in court that he spoke out of hatred.”

We have in the Disini case a serious misappreciation of overbreadth, which will now certainly cause a chilling of the exercise of the right to free expression.

(Harry Roque is associate professor at the UP College of Law and is petitioner in Adonis et al., v. The Executive Secretary. He argued the issues of libel and cybersex in the oral arguments of the Disini Jr. v. The Secretary of Justice.)

 

Read more: http://opinion.inquirer.net/72119/high-court-on-libel-lost-in-overbreadth#ixzz2uoBnkkAX 
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