THE damages awarded by the Supreme Court third division against broadcaster-newspaper columnist Raffy Tulfo and seven representatives of owners of the tabloid “Abante Tonite” for libel totaled P1.71 million. They were ordered to pay businessman complainant Michael Guy P500,000 moral damages, P1 million exemplary damages, and P211,200 attorney’s fees.
The SC ruling, promulgated last April 20 but publicized only last Thursday (July 25), dwelt mainly on the issue of damages, not the penalty for the crime of libel. The issue was whether the victim of libel was entitled to actual, moral and exemplary damages.
The high tribunal affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals that had taken out fine and subsidiary jail term from the penalty—and ruled on what can be given: only moral and exemplary damages.
‘Shoot to Kill’ column
In Tulfo’s column “Shoot to Kill” in Abante of March 20, 2004 (titled “Malinis ba talaga o naglilinasan lang: Sino si Finance Secretary Juanita Amatong?”), the writer accused Guy of asking then finance secretary Amatong to intervene in a tax investigation against the businessman. He said Amatong ordered the Revenue Integrity Protection Service (RIPS) of the department to surrender to her all records of the investigation.
There was no investigation against Guy, the court said.
The Makati Regional Trial Court (Branch 32) on Feb. 24, 2010 convicted Tulfo and seven representatives of publisher Monica Publishing Corp. of libel. Penalty for the crime was a fine of P6,000 each for the convicted of libel Tulfo and seven representatives of Monica Publishing Corp. Plus the civil liability of P5 million for actual damages, P5 million for moral damages and P211,200 for attorneys fees.
Changes by C.A.
Guy couldn’t dispute the ruling on the criminal aspect, which was solely the state’s concern. On the civil part, Guy wanted more money and went to the Court of Appeals. The C.A., in an Aug. 30, 2013 ruling, awarded P500,000 moral damages and P500,000 exemplary damages. It removed actual damages.
Guy sought reconsideration and on June 13, 2014, the C.A. amended its decision. This time, it deleted exemplary damages, along with actual damages, and awarded only P500,000 moral damages and the P211,2100 attorney’s fees. And, hallelujah, it removed the fine and subsidiary jail term in case of insolvency.
Still, Guy raised the issue of damages to the SC, asking that he be paid P5 million. And 15 years after the Abante column and five years after the C.A. ruling, the high court issued its decision affirming the lower appellate court’s finding of guilt and increasing the damages but not the amount sought.
Good, bad for media
What are most striking for media and news consumers in Michael Guy vs. Raffy Tulfo, et al. (GR#213023, April 20 2019):
 Good for media: The SC upheld the removal by the C.A. of fine and subsidiary imprisonment, the penalty imposed by the RTC. It tends to implement the standing memo-circular of the high court encouraging judges not to impose jail term, even in the form of subsidiary penalty.
 Helpful to media: The requirement that the complainant prove pecuniary loss before actual damages can be awarded and proof of mental anguish and suffering for moral damages to be granted.
 Strike against media: The imposition of P1 million exemplary damages on Tulfo and his co-accused, which was clearly aimed to punish him and set an example against misconduct by journalists.
No longer to be repeated
Guy, in his complaint, alleged that Tulfo “deliberately took advantage of his stature as a renowned journalist to tarnish” the petitioner’s “reputation.” Tulfo in his column accused Guy of “seeking help from a government official (the finance chief) for an alleged tax fraud investigation.”
In awarding exemplary damages, the SC cited the “need to ensure” that the lapse in verifying the story “will no longer be repeated.” The SC found that Tulfo and the Abante journalists “published the article without verifying the truth of the allegations” against Guy. In effect, the high court punished Tulfo and his co-accused.
The two lead paragraphs of the decision written by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen talk of “the degree of freedom by which journalists operate to uncover and write the news” as “indication of the current state of our country’s democracy.” And “in today’s digital age, the work of journalists is held to a higher standard more than ever.”
The Constitution protects a free press, the ruling says. But the freedom is “not a carte blanche that allows journalists to abandon their responsibility for truth...”
The ruling’s last four paragraphs preach of media ethics and raise an appeal and hope:
 That the journalists’ adherence to truth “may provide a bulwark against the recklessness in social media.”
 That Tulfo, with his co-respondents from Abante, “appreciate the privilege their fame has brought them and, in the future, become more circumspect in the exercise of their profession.”
But what must sting and hurt more is the award of exemplary damages of P1 million. Exemplary damages supposedly set an example but they are basically punitive and suppressive.
The ruling’s explanation on exemplary damages also brings to bold relief the court’s role on media behavior: “Exemplary damages are designed to permit the courts to mold behavior that has socially deleterious consequences.” They are imposed as “a requirement of public policy to suppress the wanton acts of the offender.:.”
The SC ruling may be viewed as some form of decriminalizing libel by dumping the jail term even as subsidiary penalty. And yet it also reminds the journalist that the law may still restrict, through the courts, the freedom most people say the press in the country enjoys.