MANILA--The Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed the libel suit filed by former President Joseph Estrada against an ambassador and stock holder of a telephone company, and a national newspaper.

Estrada sued Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco last year for P10 million to P20 million in damages before the San Juan City Prosecutor’s Office.

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This is in connection with Yuchengco’s allegation that Estrada “coerced” him into selling his stake in the Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT) Company.

Also charged were Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) publisher Isagani Yambot, editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc and reporters Daxim Lucas, Christine Avendaño, and Doris Dumlao to appear during the preliminary investigation.

In a 17-page resolution penned by State Prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera, the DOJ said there was nothing defamatory in the assailed article that came out in PDI on September 16, 2009.

The PDI, in its September 16 issue, came out with an article entitled “Erap bullied me, said Yuchengco,” which was based on a privilege speech delivered by Senator Panfilo Lacson, Estrada’s former ally-turned-nemesis, in a Senate session.

“There was no allegation therein of crime, vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of complainant Estrada, or any person for that matter,” the resolution stated.

 

Navera said Yuchengco only confirmed the privilege speech of Senator Lacson in so far as it relates to the taking of his 7.75 percent holdings in the Philippine Telecommunications Investment Corp. (PTIC) in 1998.

The biggest shareholder of PLDT then was PTIC, which owned about 28 percent of the telecommunications firm.

 

He said Yuchengco did not even mention the name or identified Estrada as the one who forcibly took his shareholdings from him “through sheer intimidation and serious threat.”

 

“The questioned statement can be interpreted in no other way than that Yuchengco’s shareholdings in PTIC were taken from him through intimidation and threats to himself, his family and his businesses. Yuchengco did not cast any aspersion on complainant Estrada’s or any other person’s character, integrity and reputation,” the DOJ further said.

Libel charges

 

In his complaint, Estrada alleged that respondent mediamen should be held liable for libel for publishing and circulating Yuchengco’s statements confirming Lacson’s privilege speech.

Lacson said in the speech that Estrada used the Philippine National Police to harass Yuchengco by threatening to arrest his youngest son and namesake, Alfonso “Tito” Yuchengco III, on trumped-up drug charges.

 

Estrada, however, denied bullying or threatening Yuchengco to give up his PLDT shares.

The prosecutor said that going beyond the interpretation of the assailed statement of Yuchengco would violate the principle in libel cases, which the questioned statement should be taken in its plain, natural and ordinary meaning.

 

The DOJ further said that the questioned statement constitutes fair comment on matters of public interest, hence, qualified privileged in nature.

 

Even assuming that the questioned statement is defamatory to Estrada, it does not necessarily render Yuchengco liable for libel because it refers to him as a public person and in his public capacity.

 

“Since the privileged character of a communication destroys the presumption of malice, the onus of proving actual malice lies on complainant Estrada (but) no malice can be presumed from the questioned statement because the complainant is a public figure,” the DOJ said.

Estrada, an actor-celebrity, a former public official and a presidential candidate, is a public figure within contemplation of law, DOJ added.

 

The complainant, likewise, failed to prove that Yuchengco was prompted by personal ill-will to inflict harm on Estrada’s reputation in circulating the questioned statement.

 

As to the liability of PDI editors and reporters, the DOJ said Estrada has not shown the falsity of the contents of the news report or that respondents were aware that they were false or that there was reckless disregard as to whether the statements are false or not.

 

Yuchengco, meanwhile, sought the inhibition of the San Juan prosecutors in conducting preliminary investigation for fear of a biased ruling due to the “dominant political presence” of Estrada and his family in the city.

This prompted the DOJ to transfer the case for preliminary investigation at the DOJ main office. (ECV/Sunnex)