One of the libel cases I am handling is the case against my father Ely P. Dejaresco, the editor-publihser of the Negros Chronicle, a 33-year old weekly newspaper in Negros Oriental (www.negroschronicle.com).
Last June 26, the Department of Justice granted the appeal of the Negros Chronicle which had sought a review of the resolution of the Dumaguete city prosecutor finding probable cause against the Chronicle editor-publisher.
In 2004, the city prosecution had recommended the filing in court of an Information for libel.
The DOJ resolution upheld the constitutional right of citizens to freedom of the press.
Here is the news article published in the Negros Chronicle in its July 9 2006 issue:
DOJ junks Dicen libel, upholds press freedom
The Department of Justice has dismissed the libel complaint filed by city councilor Samuel Dicen against Ely P. Dejaresco, editor-publisher of the Negros Chronicle.
In a resolution dated June 26, 2006 penned by Undersecretary Ernesto L. Pineda, the justice department reversed the resolution of assistant city prosecutor Edna Villamil dated June 17 2004, who had earlier found probable cause, and recommended that the Chronicle publisher be tried in court for the crime of libel (I.S. No. 2004-223).
The origin: tigbakay
The libel complaint filed by Dicen stemmed from the criticisms published in the Negros Chronicle against the city council for legalizing tigbakay and allowing to proliferate through a provision surreptitiously placed in the city tax ordinance.
Because of this anomaly, there was a proposal in the city council to repeal this tigbakay provision in the tax ordinance, but which proposal was killed by the city council.
Dicen was one of the councilors who voted to kill the proposal to repeal the tigbakay provision.
City councilor Dicen filed a complaint for libel claiming the Chronicle article defamed him.
Assistant city prosecutor Edna Villamil agreed with Dicen and found probable cause to hold the Chronicle editor-publisher for trial
The chronicle publisher elevated the matter to the Department of Justice for review, which found merit in his appeal.
The Department of Justice rebuked assistant prosecutor Villamil’s findings that the element of malice was “presumed to exist.”
The DOJ explained that in order for a publication to be libelous, the writer of the article must be actuated by malice.
“We find the element of malice wanting in this case.,” the DOJ resolution stated.
Privileged character of the article
The DOJ ruled: “While, as a general rule, malice is presumed from defamatory words, the privileged character of a communication destroys the presumption of malice.”
The justice department also ruled that the burden of proving actual malice lies in Samuel Dicen, the complainant.
“He must clearly show the existence of malice when as the true motives of the respondent in his news articles,” the resolution said.
On the contrary, the department of justice found that the Chronicle editor did not act with malice when he caused the publication of the news articles as he merely reported the manner of the passage and approval of a tax ordinance by the city council of Dumaguete.
A matter of public concern
“Certainly, a tax ordinance is a matter of public concern and interest as it imposes a duty and financial burden on anyone,” the DOJ ruled.
“Verily , a fair comment on matters of public concern is not libelous, especially in this case when there is no showing that respondent reported anything that was extrinsic to the passage of the tax ordinance in question,” the DOJ said. Villamil debunked
The justice department also debunked assistant prosecutor Villamil who wrote in her junked resolution, that a finding of malice can be derived from false statements in the publication.
In her resolution, Villamil had written:
“The defamatory imputation that complainant was one of five councilors who hoodwinked the provincial board has no basis and is therefore false.
For which reason when a defamatory imputation is false and is not based on actual facts, there can certainly be no justifiable motives. In writing and publishing the said articles, the element of malice is therefore presumed.”
In rejecting Dumaguete prosecutor Villamil, the department of justice ruled: “To be considered malicious, the libelous statements must be shown to have been written or published with the knowledge that they are false or in “reckless disregard of what is false or not”.
The Department of Justice upheld the argument of the Chronicle publisher that the standard to be applied in defamation complaints initiated by public officials is the “actual malice” standard.
Actual malice means that the writer of an article complained against wrote it with knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard of what is false or not”
Meaning of actual malice
The DOL explained the meaning of actual malice invoking Arturo Borjal versus Court of Appeals (G.R. 126446, January 14, 1999): “Reckless disregard of what is false or not” means that the defendant entertained serious doubt as to the truth of the publication, or that he possesses a high degree of awareness of their probable falsity.
Falsity is not the standard
The DOJ also rejected prosecutor Villamil’s erroneous use of the “falsity standard” in determining the existence of probable cause.
Undersecretary Pineda, who penned the DOJ resolution said: “Even assuming that the contents of the articles are false, mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity alone does not prove actual malice.”
“Errors or misstatements are inevitable in any scheme of truly free expression and debate. Consistent with good faith and reasonable care, the press should not be held to account, to a point of suppression, for honest mistake or imperfections in the choice of language.” The DOJ said, citing the Borjal decision.
The DOJ commended the Chronicle’s performance of its duty as a watchdog of government affairs by saying that the Chronicle editor was merely moved by his sense of civic duty and, prodded by his moral responsibility as a newspaperman, proceeded to report what he believed to be in good faith, matters of public concern and or general interest.”
Citing Bulletin Publication Corp. versus Court of Appeals, the DOJ concluded: “A newspaper should be free to report on events in which the public has a legitimate interest, with minimum fear of being hurled in court in criminal or civil actions for libel, so long as the newspaper respects and keeps within the standards of morality and civility prevailing within the general community.”
Dicen had filed a series of libel complaints Negros Chronicle none of which prospered.
The city prosecutor has been ordered bv the DOJ to enforce the resolution and report the action taken in ten days.