Sunday, June 28, 2009

Defamation suit by Bais mayor dismissed

The Supreme Court second division has dismissed the civil defamation suit filed by Bais City Mayor Hector C. Villanueva against two national dailies, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Manila Bulletin, and its editorial personnel.
Villanueva sued the two newspapers when it erroneously published, just before the 1992 elections, that Hector Villanueva had been disqualified as a mayoralty candidate. This false news reporting, Villanueva alleged, resulted in his electoral defeat.
Penned by Justice Leonardo Quisumbing, the Supreme Court ruled, among others, that the erroneous news report constituted part of what is known as qualified prvileged communication, therefore the newspaper cannot be held liable for defamation.
The Supreme Court cited the case of Arturo Borjal versus Court of Appeals (G.R. No.126466, Januay 14, 1999), which said that the enumeration in Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code is not an exclusive list of qualified privileged communications since commentaries on matters of pubic interest constitute a valid defense in an acton for libel or slander.(G.R. 164437, May 15 2009)

JID observation:
The Borjal case involved an opinion article. The Villanueva case involved a news report. The difference is that news report is not a "commentary". A news report is a narration of facts obtained by a news oganization. So in this case, even straight news reports, or narration of facts (as oppposed to commentaries/opinons), despite being erroneous, are considered qualified privileged information, which negates any liability for damages.

Tata Villanueva can pursue this discussion in the high court. I recall that the Supreme Court in the Borjal case said that commentaries, to avoid civil liabilities, must be based on established facts. Factual correctness is a pre-condition to justify defamtory commentaries. Let me quote that particular Supreme Court statement in Borjal: "In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts." But in this recent Villanueva case, even publication of factual incorrectness itself would defeat a defamation suit.
Has the Borjal ruling (requiring factual correctness as a pre-condition) been overturned?
As journalist, this decision is a victory. As a student of the law, I think this should be clarified.

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