The Court of Appeals has dismissed a libel case that had imposed P100-million in damages against a national daily, its executives and editorial staff, believed to be the biggest monetary judgment ever awarded in a defamation suit in the country’s history.
In junking the P100-million libel suit filed against the Manila Chronicle Publishing Corporation and its executives, the appellate court said imposing one hundred million pesos in damages in a libel suit “would have devastating and catastrophic effect on the freedom of speech and of the press.”
The case stemmed from criminal and civil complaints for libel filed by Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco against the defunct Manila Chronicle, its owners and staff members.
The defendants relieved of the P100-million monetary award were the Manila Chronicle Corporation, Raul Valino, Neal Cruz, Ernesto Tolentino, Noel Cabrera, Thelma San Juan, Gerry Zaragoza, Donna Gatdula, Rodney Diola, and Robert G. Coyiuto Jr.
Yuchengco, aside from being ambassador, has business interests in insurance, the Malayan Insurance.
Yuchengco complained about a series of defamatory articles agasint him published in the Manila Chronicle in 1994.
Yuchengco complained about being labeled a “Marcos crony” in one of the articles.
Yuchengco also complained that the published articles branded him as a front or dummy for Marcos and Romualdez in Benguet
Yuchengco also complained that the articles published had accused him of engaging in unsound and immoral business practices.
Yuchengco also complained that one of the published articles portrayed him as an unfair and uncaring employer when employees of Grepalife, of which he was chairman, staged a strike.
Yuchengco complained that the articles had accused him of inducing RCBC to violate the banking laws, and orders of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Yuchengco also complained the articles imputed to him the derogatory tag of “corporate raider,” implying that he was seeking to profit for something he did not work for.
The criminal libel filed by Yuchengco was dismissed.
On the other hand, the civil case was decided in Yuchengco’s favor where the trial court awarded P100-million in damages.
On appeal (CA G.R. CV No. 76995), the court of appeals initially upheld the trial court decision.
However on August 28, 2008, the court of appeals set aside its ruling when, upon review, it re-examined the prevailing jurisprudence on defamation, particularly the Supreme Court doctrine in Arturo Borjal a.k.a. Art Borjal and Maximo Soliven versus Court of Appeals (G.R. 126466, January 14, 1999).
The amended decision was penned by Justice Amelita G. Tolentino, and Justices Isaias P. Dicdican and Japar B. Dimaampao
Based on the Borjal ruling, the court of appeals determined that Alfonso Yuchengco is clearly a public official or public figure.
The court noted that Yuchengco is recognized as “Ambassador,” which title is always indicated before his name.
The court also noted that Yuchengco has been appointed Presidential Adviser on Foreign Affairs with cabinet rank.
Among the prominent positions occupied by Yuchengco were as Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations; special envoy to China, Japan, Korea; Presidential assistant on APEC matters; ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Peoples Republic of China, among others.
The court of appeals also noted that Yuchengco heads the Yuchengco group of companies which include companies such as Rizal Banking and Commercial Corporation(RCBC), Malayan Insurance, Great Pacific Life, Mapua Institute of Technology.
Yuchengco also served as Chair of the board of DOLE Philippines, PLDT, and Philippine Fuji Xerox Corporation.
The subject articles dealt with the operations of publicly-listed corporations, imbued with public interest, which Yuchengco heads.
Being a public official or public figure, the court said that Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco’s case falls under the established “actual malice doctrine”
Under this doctrine, the public official or public figure, in order to recover damages for defamatory imputation, must prove actual malice.
Proof of actual malice means that the newspaper, in making the publication, knew the article to be false, or was in reckless disregard of whether or not the article was false.
In the case filed by Yuchengco, the court of appeals took note of his testimony where Yuchengco’s attribution of malice were based on his mere “suspicion”
The court of appeals said: the testimony consisting of mere suspicion is not proof of malice on the part of the newspaper.
In the absence of proof of actual malice, damages cannot be awarded.
The court of appeals ruled: To hold the defendants-appellants liable to pay jointly and severally the plaintiff one hundred million pesos in damages would have devastating and catastrophic effect on freedom of speech and of the press.
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