MANILA -- Journalists who felt aggrieved by First Gentleman Mike Arroyo’s propensity to file libel charges scored a victory Sunday after the appellate court turned down again the bid to dismiss the damage suit they filed against him.

The newsmen sought P12.5 million in damages before the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) in response to the flurry of libel cases that Arroyo filed since 2003 -- 10 against 45 members of the press, a number unprecedented in Philippine history.

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All of these libel cases that the First Gentleman filed against the journalists prospered, with the city prosecutor of Manila supposedly finding probable cause to charge them.

In a 23-page decision penned by Associate Justice Sesinando Villon, the Court of Appeal’s (CA) ninth division sustained the ruling of Judge Zenaida Galapate-Laguilles of the Makati RTC Branch 143 in denying Arroyo’s motion to dismiss the damage suit for failure of the journalists to immediately answer the written questions within the extended period.

“We find that the delay is excusable by force of circumstance… Private respondents’ (newsmen) filing of motions for extension of time to answer the written interrogatories and request for admission clearly speak of their due diligence to comply with the same,” the court ruled.

The CA noted all the respondents are represented by only one law office, thus it is to be expected that their counsel will have difficulty in coordinating with each of them.

It further said the request for time by the journalists will not be of material injury to Arroyo, since there is no showing that they deliberately refused to comply with the modes set by the court.

The appellate court, however, granted Arroyo’s petition to hear his defenses before the hearing at the Makati RTC.

The CA found that the respondent judge issued the assailed orders dated May 13, 2009 and June 18, 2009, terminating the presentation of Arroyo’s affirmative defenses and setting the case for pre-trial conference, for no justifiable reason.

“Respondent judge should have considered the fact that the circumstances, which prevented petitioner from presenting evidence on his affirmative defenses were not attributable to him alone,” the CA said.

The appellate court noted that based on the records of the hearing at the RTC, only four instances that the resetting of the hearing had been made upon the initiative of the petitioner, which have been found to be valid and without intention to delay proceedings.

Among these instances was when Arroyo underwent a surgery for cardiac aneurism, causing the resetting of the hearing on April 12, 2007, and on May 23, 2007 when he moved for another postponement as he was still not physically fit to stand trial.

Concurring with the ruling were Associate Justices Mario Guarina III, chairman of the division, and Franchito Diamante.

Arroyo earlier moved to dismiss the amended complaint for damages sought by newsmen due to their alleged failure to pay the correct docket fees.

He also said the preliminary hearing based on the amended complaint would violate his rights since the said court has yet to acquire jurisdiction of the case as the private respondents have yet to pay the proper docket fees.

Under the Rules of Court, the payment of docket fee is required before any court takes jurisdiction of a case. Computation of docket fees is based on a specific percentage of the damages being asked by the complainant.

Going by the original complaint, he said the 39 complainants are claiming damages totaling P487.5 million, which has a corresponding docket fee of P9 million, but the initial payments made by the mediamen were “nowhere near that amount.”

Also, Arroyo said private respondents’ request that the word “each” be replaced by the word “aggregate” in their prayer was obviously intended to mislead the court to evade payment of the correct docket fees.

Joining the damage suit were journalists from different media entities spanning television, radio and print. Among them are Malaya’s Ellen Tordesillas, Minnie Advincula, Regina Bengco, JP Lopez and columnist Lito Banayo; Ninez Cacho-Olivares and the Daily Tribune, Marites Vitug, Glenda Gloria, Ricky Carandang, Romulo Marinas, Gina Capili-Inciong Gerry Baldo, Sherwin Olaes, Lito Tugadi, Jing Santos, Rustico Otico, Maria Concepcion Cruz, Miriam Grace Go, Ma. Romina Gonzalez; Ma. Cristina Rodriguez, Yvonne Chua, Alcuin Papa, Ramon Tulfo, Erwin Tulfo, William Esposo, Jose Pavia, Rowena Paraan, Sweet May Cawicaan, Jofelle Tesorio, Jose Bimbo Santos, Rachel Khan, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism Inc., Francisco Tatad, Conrado de Quiros, Nixon Cua and Vergel Santos. (ECV/Sunnex)