Appeals court orders dismissal of 'insufficient' libel case vs Failon
A photo of the Court of Appeals in Ermita, Manila.
The STAR, File
Appeals court orders dismissal of 'insufficient' libel case vs Failon
( - July 16, 2020 - 7:03pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Court of Appeals ordered the dismissal of a libel case filed against broadcaster Ted Failon and others by Francis Tolentino, now a senator. 

The court said that Cavite Regional Trial Court Branch 18 should not have allowed the case to go to trial in the first place.

Tolentino, a former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman, filed the libel complaint over a 2016 episode of "Failon Ngayon" on the MMDA's purchase of second-hand motorcycles for the Papal Visit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference meetings in 2015.

The MMDA has since said that the purchases were above board and was done because no brand-new motorcycles were available at the time.

Incomplete Information

The court said that the Information filed against Failon and the others was incomplete and that the allegations were insufficient to continue prosecution.

Although the Department of Justice had moved to withdraw the Information in October 2017 because it had not sufficiently alleged malice, Judge Jaime Santiago said that the presence of malice ought to be determined during trial.

The CA said that the RTC had, in effect, "deferred ruling on whether probable cause exists or not" and opted to allow the prosecution to try to prove malice through evidence.

"This cannot be allowed," the CA said.

The court said that while the law presumes defamatory imputations are malicious even if true, the court must also consider the freedom of the press in cases "involving publications which deal with public officials and the discharge of their official functions."

RELATED: Fresh cybercrime ruling highlights old problem of criminal libel

'Full and free discussion of public affairs'

Citing the Supreme Court ruling in Guingguing vs Court of Appeals, the court said: "In any event, where the criticism is of public officials and their conduct of business, the interest in private reputation is overborne by the larger public interest, secured by the Constitution, in the dissemination of truth."

It noted that even if the utterance is false, "the great principles of the Constitution which secure freedom of expression in this area preclude attaching adverse consequences to any except the knowing or reckless falsehood."

It said that actual malice is an indispensable element in libel cases involving public officers and figures.

Actual malice, the CA said, means the respondent knowingly made a false imputation "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The court noted Tolentino was and remains a public official "and the matters subject of the accursed publication pertained to transactions entered into by him as MMDA General Manager."

It added: "Certainly, if we are to remain faithful to the dictum that public office is a public trust, some leeway should be given to the public to express disgust or discontent."

It said that even if the expression of public sentiment is "sometimes acrid, harsh, critical, vitriolic and accusatory," the full and free discussion of public affairs is in the interest of society and of the maintenance of good government.

Members of the Philippine press, as well as press freedom and freedom of expression advocates, have long rallied for the decriminalization of libel, a law that has been carried over from 1932.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said in 2014 that the “libel provisions of the RPC have been problematic for free expression and press freedom since 1932...which has been used in many instances to silence journalists.”

The media watchdog monitors libel cases against reporters across the country.

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