Unprivileged and unprotected communication
A LAW EACH DAY (KEEPS TROUBLE AWAY) - Jose C. Sison (The Philippine Star) - August 23, 2019 - 12:00am

The freedom of speech and of the press is protected by our Constitution particularly Section 4, Article III of the Bill of Rights. But said Section 4, Article III does not protect the “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,” or legally known as libel. What must be proven in order that an imputation is considered as a libel? What defenses are available to a person charged with libel? These are the questions raised and resolved in the case of Carrie.

Carrie is a reporter in one of newspapers of general circulation in the country. In one of the issues of said newspaper, a news item written by Carrie was published wherein it was reported that residents of a subdivision near Metro Manila, through their lawyer Atty. Dikilala, have asked the Bureau of Immigration to deport a foreigner residing therein who allegedly shoots the wayward pets of his neighbors straying in his residence. The residents reportedly alleged that the foreigner’s deportation could help prevent the future recurrence of such incident considering that the house owners could not control their pets slipping out of their dwellings unnoticed. The confrontation between the foreigner and the owner of the pet he shot might even exacerbate the problem, the lawyer further wrote.

Claiming that the report was false and defamatory, the foreigner who is a retired engineer permanently residing in the Philippines with his Filipino wife and children, filed a civil action for damages against Carrie and the newspaper which published Carrie’s report as well as its publisher. He alleged that said article destroyed the respect and admiration he enjoyed in the community and that since it was published, his wife has received several queries and angry calls daily and nightly, from friends, neighbors and relatives with stones being thrown at their house breaking several flower pots.

For their defense, Carrie, et al. contended that the news item was published out of a social and moral duty to inform the public on matters of general interest, promote public good and protect the public morals of the people and that it was done in good faith and without malice. Furthermore, the source of said news was the letter of Atty. Dikilala to the BI, a copy of which Carrie acquired from the Intelligence Division of the BI.

At the trial it was proven that the news article indeed contained several inaccuracies and discrepancies from its source. The letter is a mere request for a verification of the foreigner’s status while Carrie wrote that the residents had asked the BI to deport him. No complaints had in fact been lodged against him by any of the residents nor had any deportation proceedings been initiated against him. Then worse is that there was no lawyer in the roll of attorneys of the Bar Confidant by the name of Atty. Dikilala. Despite these evidences, the Trial Court still dismissed the complaint filed by the foreigner allegedly because said defamatory article falls within the purview of a qualifiedly privileged communication protected by the freedom of the press and therefore cannot be presumed to be malicious. Was the trial court correct?

No, said the Court of Appeals (CA). It held that the exercise of the freedom of expression and the right to free speech and of the press requires everyone to “act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith” (Article 19, Civil Code). The CA emphasized that the foreigner in this case was neither a public official nor a public figure, and thus, even without malice on the part of Carrie, et al., the news item published had been done in violation of said Article 19 because no bona fide effort has been made to ascertain the truth thereof. There was also no ascertainment of the veracity of the information given them by the Intelligence Division of the BI before publishing the news article despite being aware that it would bring the foreigner into disrepute.

This ruling was affirmed by the Supreme Court. It declared that the Constitutional privilege granted under the freedom of speech and of the press against liability for damages do not extend to Carrie et al. because the freedom of the press is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. If there is (1) an allegation of a discreditable act or condition concerning another; (2) a publication of the said allegation; (3) identity of the person defamed; and (4) malice, there is libel which is not a protected speech.

The SC said that while Carrie et al. only claimed that there is no proof of malice, it is presumed, if no good intention or justifiable motive for making it has been shown (Article 354, RPC), except in the following cases: (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 confidential in nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any act performed by any public officers in the performance of their functions. Here the story of Carrie is not privileged in character for it is neither a private communication nor a fair and true report without any comments or remarks against a public official or public figure. So Carrie et al., should pay jointly and severally, moral and exemplary damages and legal fees totaling P150,000 (Lee et al. vs. Thoenen, G.R. 143372, Dec. 13, 2005)

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Email: attyjosesison@gmail.com

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