The Supreme Court (SC) acquitted newsman Raffy Tulfo of libel charges in connection with his 1999 column in a tabloid where he bared the alleged illegal activities of a Bureau of Customs (BOC) lawyer.
In the decision announced Tuesday, the SC said “the constitutionality of criminalizing libel is doubtful.”
“The libel cases that have reached this Court in recent years generally involve notable personalities for parties, highlighting a propensity for the powerful and influential to use the advantages of criminal libel to silence their critics,” the SC said.
It added that “alternative legal remedies exist to address unwarranted attacks on a private person’s reputation and credibility.”
“Civil actions for defamation are more consistent with our democratic values since they do not threaten the constitutional right to free speech, and avoid the unnecessary chilling effect on criticisms toward public officials,” the Court said.
The tribunal reminded media practitioners of the standards expected of them as provided for under the Journalist Code of Ethics.
“We regard the vital role that the media plays in ensuring that the government and its officials remain true to their oath in carrying out their mandates in a manner prescribed by law. Nevertheless, the constitutionally protected freedoms enjoyed by the press cannot be used as a shield to advance the malicious propagation of false information carried out by unscrupulous entities to injure another’s reputation,” the Court said.
Tulfo and the tabloid owners were sued over a series of articles on alleged shady dealings in the BOC, particularly on the reported extortion activities against brokers and shippers, as well as a supposed illicit affair, involving lawyer Carlos So.
The Court’s Third Division ruled that “the prosecution failed to prove that petitioner Tulfo acted with malice, or with reckless disregard in determining the truth or falsity of the imputations.”
The Court held that the allegations all referred to acts related to So’s official functions at the BOC.
It further held that reading the articles as a whole, the statements indicated So’s alleged use of connections to stay in position and concealed his misconduct. They were written to end his purported abuse of public position.
“From these, it can be deduced that the impugned articles fall within the purview of qualified privileged communications. These columns relate to Atty. So’s exercise of his official functions. His alleged actuations refer to matters of public interest which the citizenry ought to know,” the Court said.
Tulfo and publishers Allen A. Macasaet and Nicolas V. Quijano were sued by So before a Pasay City Regional Trial Court, which convicted them for 14 counts of libel and imposed on them the penalty of imprisonment and fine.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on July 31, 2006 but after a motion for reconsideration, eight counts of libel were quashed and the remaining ones were sustained.