MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) journalists won against former senator Juan Ponce Enrile in a libel case filed by the politician over a 2001 Marcos ill-gotten wealth story, after the Supreme Court reversed an earlier Court of Appeals ruling.
Enrile initially won at a trial court in 2013, and again in 2016 at the Court of Appeals (CA) which ordered the journalists to pay a total of P1.3 million in damages and attorney’s fees.
But in a decision promulgated on July 14, 2021, but released only on February 8, the First Division reversed and set aside the CA decision.
“There is no proof that the publication of the subject article was made to harass, vex, or humiliate Enrile. The article was a straightforward narration: a plain report that ‘a person said this’ although it was erroneously attributed to a person who did not utter the statements,” said the decision penned by Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa, with concurrences from Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo and Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang and Rodil Zalameda.
The case is rooted in a story written by written by Donna Cueto and Dona Pazzibugan, on the settlement of the coco levy funds that the Inquirer published on December 4, 2001.
The coco levy funds are recovered funds from late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ cronies who amassed ill-gotten wealth from the taxes of coconut farmers during the dictatorship. The funds were supposed to benefit coconut farmers.
The Inquirer report said that the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) opposed the settlement, saying it would allow Marcos cronies to “keep their plundered loot.” The Inquirer story named the late Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Clara Lobregat, and Enrile as the cronies.
Former PCGG chairperson Haydee Yorac disowned the statement, but it was clarified later that it was former commissioner Ruben Carranza who had issued the statement to the journalists.
The First Division said there was no malice – one of the standards of which is publishing something even though they know it’s false, or if it was published with utter disregard on whether the information is false or not.
“To the mind of the Court, the reporter could not have had a high degree of awareness that the statement contained falisites when the same was handed to her by no less than a PCGG commissioner. In simple terms, why would anyone doubt a PCGG commissioner who attests that a certain statement was PCGG’s or made by the PCGG chairperson?” said the ruling.
“Lest it be misconstrued, the Court is not tolerating, much less sanctioning, irresponsible journalism. However, the case is a claim for damages arising from a supposed libel. Did the petitioners commit libel? The answer to the same is in the negative,” said the decision.
As for Enrile who filed the suit, the Supreme Court said that as a public official, the story that named him is “undoubtedly a matter of public interest.”
“Even assuming, for the sake of argument that Enrile would not qualify as a public figure, it would not necessarily follow that he could not validly be the subject of a public comment,” said the decision.
The trial court and CA decisions that favored Enrile did not impose prison sentences, consistent with judicial efforts to strike a compromise with the calls to decriminalize libel. Libel remains a criminal offense, although courts have been practicing their discretion to impose only fines.
As a final note, the Supreme Court said: “The Court declares its continued recognition of the right of every citizen to enjoy a good name and reputation. The Court, however, is equally cognizant of the important role that the continuing guarantee of the freedom of the press serves to our nation.”