• Libelous statements, presumption of malice and privileged communication

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    A Senator who was the Liberal Party (LP) head of the province blamed the then Secretary of Public Works and Communication for the loss of the LP official candidate for governor to the Nacionalista Party candidate during the 1963 local elections. The Cabinet Secretary supported an independent LP candidate, thereby causing the LP votes to be divided. In public statements widely quoted in newspapers, the Senator said that had the Secretary not sabotaged and double-crossed the LP, its official candidate would have won the elections.

    The Senator subsequently filed a formal request with the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate the actions of the Secretary in connection with certain alleged anomalous acquisitions of public works supplies and equipment. Copies of said charges were furnished to the Commission on Appointments with the request that they be considered in passing upon the Secretary’s appointment to the Cabinet.

    The Secretary issued a two-page press release, the contents of which were published in six newspapers. There, he accused the Senator of telling lies about him and that he had no other recourse but to start telling the truth about the Senator. He accused the Senator of taking advantage of his position as a member of the Monetary Board by having suspicious connections with twenty-two corporations. He also accused him of abusing his senatorial power by asking, “Is it not the height of abuse of power to threaten an American with deportation and make him a cover from getting a concession because you are a Senator of the Philippines and in the end you get the concession yourself?”

    This prompted the Senator to file a civil action for damages against the Secretary before the Manila trial court. In his defense, the Secretary claimed that he did not cause the publication of his statements, that they were made in good faith and in self-defense, and that they were qualifiedly privileged in character.

    The trial court ruled that the Secretary was liable for the issuance of the libelous press release and its publication in the papers.

    On appeal, the Supreme Court (SC) agreed with the ruling of the trial court. It did not give credence to the Secretary’s vague denial and to the vague testimonies of the newsmen who could not pinpoint the source of the press release, which they allegedly found on their desks but nevertheless accepted at face value and published the next day.

    The defense of qualified privilege communication is found in Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code –

    Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown, except in the following cases:

    1.    A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and

    2.    A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.

    The SC declared that since the Secretary’s imputations were not made privately or officially, malice is presumed. He failed to overcome this presumption, “not having shown the truth thereof, or that they were published with good intentions or with justifiable motive or even from the most liberal standpoint that they were made in the exercise of the right of fair comment on the character, good faith, ability and sincerity of public officials” (Antonino v. Valencia, No. L-26526, 27 May 1974, J. Teehankee).

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