THE Supreme Court (SC) acquitted television personality and columnist Raffy T. Tulfo of libel over his columns regarding alleged irregularities in the Bureau of Customs (BoC) and the supposed affair of a bureau lawyer.
This after the SC granted Tulfo’s petition to reverse and set aside the March 17, 2009 Amended Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA), which affirmed the conviction of Tulfo and several Abante Tonite’s former management officials.
In the same ruling, the high court reminded the Fourth Estate to be more circumspect in upholding journalism standards under the Philippine Press Institute’s Journalist Code of Ethics and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
“We regard the vital role that the media plays in ensuring that the government and its officials remain true to their oath in carrying out their mandates in a manner prescribed by law. Nevertheless, the constitutionally protected freedoms enjoyed by the press cannot be used as a shield to advance the malicious propagation of false information carried out by unscrupulous entities to injure another’s reputation,” the SC said in a decision penned by senior SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen.
In 1999, Tulfo wrote several articles on the alleged shady dealings in the BOC particularly on the reported extortion activities against brokers and shippers, as well as the alleged illegal activities involving a bureau lawyer.
“Petitioner Tulfo reported the alleged illegal activities of… in the exercise of his public functions. Our libel laws must not be broadly construed as to deter comments on public affairs and the conduct of public officials. Such comments are made in the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the press…Public officers are accountable to the people, and must serve them, with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives. Speech that guards against abuses of those in public office should be encouraged. Petitioner Tulfo should be acquitted,” the SC said.
Likewise, the high court ruled that “the prosecution failed to prove that petitioner Tulfo acted with malice, or with reckless disregard in determining the truth or falsity of the imputations.. (especially) if the allegations are related to.. official function. ”
“From these, it can be deduced that the impugned articles fall within the purview of qualified privileged communications. These columns relate to exercise of official functions. His alleged actuations refer to matters of public interest which the citizenry ought to know,” the Court said in a press statement.
Because the privileged nature of the published articles had been established, the court noted that the burden shifted to the prosecution to prove that actual malice existed.
The SC continued that prosecution for libel “must undergo the rigorous and exacting standard of ensuring that it does not violate the fundamental right to free speech and the press.”
“Unless the prosecution proves that the defamatory tatements were made with actual malice, a criminal case for libel against critics of a public officer’s exercise of official functions cannot prosper,” the SC said.
The Court also acquitted former publisher Allen Macasaet and former managing editor Nicolas Quijano. But the SC clarified the” seeming confusion” in accountability for libel as provided for by Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
The SC held that when the accused has been specifically identified as “author, editor or proprietor” or “printer/publisher” of the publication, there is no requirement to prove that they had knowledge and participation in the publication of the article.