July 17 ------ The Court of Appeals (CA) has ordered the dismissal of a libel case that stemmed from allegations by Senator Francis Tolentino against ABS-CBN anchor Ted Failon and his show's producers. In a July 7 decision, the 12th Division set aside a trial court's orders denying a motion by prosecutors to withdraw the charges. The CA ordered the Cavite Regional Trial Court Branch 18 to cease proceedings in the case.
In 2016, Tolentino, formerly the general manager of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), accused Failon of libel over an episode of his show Failon Ngayon "involving the purchase of second-hand motorcycles by the MMDA... with commentary in the broader context of possible fund misuse by the agency." Tolentino filed a second complaint in 2017 over a rebroadcast of the first episode in the show's recap episode on December 31, 2016. Prosecutors in Tagaytay City found that the first episode, but not the recap episode, was libelous and filed a case in court in 2017. Failon appealed before the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Prosecutors eventually moved to withdraw the case after the DOJ, acting on Failon's appeal, ruled there was no actual malice in the broadcast. The trial court, however, denied prosecutors' motion to withdraw, ruling that actual malice must be threshed out during trial. This prompted Failon to appeal before the CA. In its 26-page ruling, the appeals court said Tolentino was and still is a public official and that Failon's broadcast pertained to Tolentino's transactions when he was MMDA chief.
In libel cases involving public officials on matters of public interest, what is punished is the publication of a "calculated" or "reckless falsehood," or the "known lie," the CA said. For this case to lead to a conviction, the prosecution must allege and prove actual malice, the CA said. It said the trial court was wrong when it ruled that actual malice is a matter of defense. The CA said courts are not confined within the meaning of the libel law when dealing with cases involving public officials and their official functions -- "rather, the case should likewise be examined under the constitutional precept of freedom of the press," it said.
"In libel cases involving public officials in relation to their public duties, truth is a defense. Even harsh, opprobrious, and erroneous opinion regarding public officials and their duties, as long as they are borne of established facts, remain privileged if they are not proven to be attended by actual malice," the CA said, citing jurisprudence. "Mere error, inaccuracy, or even falsity alone, honest mistakes, or imperfection in the choice of language are not necessarily actionable. Gross or even extreme negligence is not sufficient to establish actual malice," it continued.
The decision was penned by Associate Justice Pablito Perez, with concurrences from Associate Justices Stephen Cruz and Carlito Calpatura. "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," their decision states, citing jurisprudence. "Even if such expression is sometimes acrid, harsh, critical, vitriolic and accusatory. The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full and free discussion of public affairs."