The Supreme Court (SC): MANILA: Guilty verdict for libel on Raffy Tulfo

Supreme Court (MANILA BULLETIN)

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SC urges journalists to exercise high degree of professionalism, upholds guilty verdict for libel on Raffy Tulfo

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The Supreme Court (SC) has reminded journalists that while they are “the eyes and ears of the citizenry” and “sentinels who keep watch over the actions of the government,” the probing done by them must be made “with good motives and for justifiable ends.”

 

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“In today’s digital age, the work of journalists is held to a higher standard more than ever. Beyond the multitude that participate on social media, they have value as part of a profession that should be trusted with the truth,” it said.

But the SC said: “The protection afforded by the Constitution to the press is not carte blanche (blanket authority) that allows journalists to abandon their responsibility for truth and transparency. It is incumbent upon them to exercise a high degree of professionalism in their work, regardless of the subject of their stories.”

With the decision written by Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor F. Leonen, the SC affirmed with modification the 2014 Court of Appeals (CA) decision which upheld the guilty verdict for libel imposed by the trial court on broadcast journalist Raffy T. Tulfo and officers of tabloid Abante Tonite led by its publisher Allen Macasaet.

 

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The complaint against Tulfo and the tabloid’s officers was filed by businessman Michael C. Guy who, in 2004, was being investigated by the Revenue Integrity Protection Service (RIPS) of the Department of Finance for alleged tax fraud.

On March 24, 2004,  Abante Tonite published Tulfo’s article which stated that Guy went to the house of former finance secretary to seek her assistance.

The article also stated that Amatong called the head of the RIPS and directed that all the documents obtained in connection with the investigation be surrendered to her.

Claiming that the article had tainted his reputation, Guy filed before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Makati City a complaint for libel against Tulfo, Macasaet and other Abante Tonite officers.

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The prosecutors filed a case for libel before the Makati City regional trial court (RTC) which found Tulfo and his group guilty of libel.

The trial court ordered Tulfo and his group to pay a fine of P6,000 each with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency.  They were also ordered to pay Guy P5 million in actual damages, P5 million in moral damages, and P211,200 in lawyers’ fees.

The 2010 trial court decision was elevated by Tulfo and his group in separate appeals to the CA. While the judgment of conviction was affirmed in 2013, the CA reduced the award of moral damages to P500,000 and exemplary damages to P500,000.

But in an amended decision, the CA deleted the P500,000 award for actual damages for lack of factual and legal basis.

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On Aug. 26, 2014, Guy filed a petition with the SC. He claimed there was factual and legal basis for the award of actual damages.

He claimed that the trial court had found that he may be able to earn P50 million in 10 years but his good standing in the community was destroyed by “the libelous article.”

He further claimed that as the president of MG Forex Corporation, a company engaged in foreign exchange trading, he was a reputable businessman.

In resolving Guy’s petition the SC affirmed with modification the CA’s amended decision. It said: “As the Court of Appeals correctly found, petitioner failed to substantiate the loss he had allegedly sustained. Save for his testimony in court, he presented no evidence to support his claim.”

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“His allegation of possibly earning P50,000,000 in 10 years is a mere assumption without any foundation. This bare allegation is insufficient to prove that he has indeed lost P5,000,000.00 as earnings,” it said.

“As this Court has previously held, ‘the award of unrealized profits cannot be based on the sole testimony of the party claiming it,’” it added.

The SC said it does not “turn a blind eye” on irresponsible journalists who “twist the news to give an ambiguous interpretation that is in reckless disregard of the truth.”

It said that coming out with inaccurate and misleading news is a blatant violation of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a journalism organization dedicated toward stimulating  high standards of ethical behavior, promoting the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry, and inspiring and educating current and future journalists through professional development.

“Its Code of Ethics espouses the practice that journalism should be accurate and fair, and mandates accountability and transparency in the profession,” the SC said.

“As such, journalists should observe high standards expected from their profession. They must take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, careful never to deliberately distort facts or context by verifying information before releasing it for public consumption,” it added.

It stressed that the credibility of journalists is needed more than ever in light of “recklessness in social media.”

With the decision, the SC ordered Tulfo and Macasaet and their group to pay Guy P500,000 as moral damages, P1 million as exemplary damages and P211,200 as attorneys’ fees.

“All damages awarded shall be subject to interest at the rate of six percent ( 6%) per annum from the finality of this Decision until its full satisfaction,” the SC said.

By Rey Panaligan

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