QUICKLY, THE SITUATION. Former mayor Tomas Osmeña filed a criminal complaint for libel with the Cebu City prosecutor against broadcaster-newspaper columnist Bobby Nalzaro over a column item in 2015. The prosecutor found "probable cause" and filed the information for libel with the Regional Trial Court against Nalzaro. Nalzaro appealed the prosecutor's finding to the secretary of justice for review.

One judge -- out of three who handled the case in succession, as two judges inhibited themselves -- issued a warrant of arrest after finding "probable cause." Nalzaro posted bail.

In its review, the secretary of justice found no probable cause, ruling in favor of Nalzaro and ordering the prosecutor to move for the withdrawal of the case. Which the prosecutor did.

The court, not just relying on the DOJ ruling, went over the evidence and, ruling out "probable cause," dismissed the case.

Osmeña went to the Court of Appeals (CA), alleging in a certiorari petition that the RTC "gravely abused its discretion" amounting to "abuse or excess of jurisdiction."

The CA threw out the petition. Its order was promulgated last September 20 but publicized only last week, or some six years after the "offensive" column was published and Osmeña's complaint filed.

2 PROBABLY CRIMINAL WORDS. In Nalzaro's October 25, 2015 column in SunStar Cebu, Tomas Osmeña was not even the main topic. As indicated in the column headline, it was Mandaue City Mayor Jonas Cortes. And what Osmeña found offensive, which the Cebu City prosecutor found probably a crime -- in a five sentence, 50-word item about Tomas -- were just two words: "fabricated charges."

A bit of context: Two years before the column was written, Tomas lost to Michael Rama in the city's 2013 election for mayor, the first clash between political master and mentor and the first time Mike fought for the city's top post on his own.

"Tomas is moving to sabotage Mike's administration," the column said. "Unfortunately because of his obsession to get back at Mike, many innocent people got caught in the political cross-fire. An example is OIC city treasurer Diwa Cuevas. Tomas filed several administrative cases against her. Some of those cases were based on fabricated charges."

LESSON TO JOURNALISTS. The immediate lesson to news media writers and editors is that a libel complaint can be triggered by just one word or a few words. It would not need a torrent of scathing words for a public official to go to court. Editors and lawyers -- such as J. P. Garcia and Associates, which handles SunStar libel cases -- have been saying the same thing.

During the 2019 election campaign, a block-time radio program named a mayor "kawatan" (thief) scores of times in a jingle set to the tune of Rossini's William Tell overture, repeatedly played, followed by specific identification as to who the thief was. And yet that mayor didn't sue. In contrast, Nalzaro'S 2015 column used two words that were not even defamatory per se and Tomas sued. Last week, in the course of a long route starting in the prosecutor's office, the case reached a milestone: the CA affirmed the RTC ruling and dismissed Osmeña's petition.

LESSONS TO COMPLAINANTS. There are three lessons for complainants too from the CA decision:

[1] Limit on private complainant: The interest of a private complainant in the criminal case is limited to civil liability. Osmeña, who filed the petition in his capacity as private complainant, sued the Cebu Regional Trial Court Branch 18 in its public capacity and Nalzaro in his capacity as the accused. The "People of the Philippines" was included in Osmeña's complaint but the office of the solicitor general (OSG) did not take part in the petition.

The CA ruled that when a criminal case is dismissed, only the OSG may appeal.

Tomas raised the case to the CA after the trial court [a] denied his motion to arraign Nalzaro, [b] dismissed the complaint of libel, and [c] declared that the city prosecutor had no more authority to file a motion for reconsideration of the RTC ruling. Osmeña wanted the trial court to proceed with the trial by arraigning Nalzaro, for which the former mayor asked CA to nullify the RTC's orders rejecting Tomas's two motions. His petition alleged that the RTC "gravely abused its discretion, which amounted to lack or excess of jurisdiction."

The CA ruling affirmed the basic principle that in a criminal case, the "People of the Philippines" is the real party-in-interest, the government prosecutor controls the handling of the case, and the private person's interest is limited to its civil aspect. Osmeña's role in the lawsuit vs Nalzaro was merely that of "a witness for the prosecution," the CA ruling said. Only the OSG could question the motion of the prosecutor to withdraw the information and the decision of the RTC to dismiss the case.

[2] Findings on probable cause.

Private complainants must discard the belief that the finding of "probable cause" by the city prosecutor will bar a contrary finding on "probable cause" by the court. And the first judge's finding of "probable cause" to determine whether to issue or not to issue a warrant of arrest did not preclude the third judge, who conducted the trial, from deciding on its merits.

Then acting Cebu City prosecutor Jesus Rodrigo Taga-an found "probable cause" and filed the information in court against Nalzaro. The case was raffled successively to RTC Branches 5 and 23, whose judges inhibited themselves because of relations with either or both Osmeña and the broadcaster, and finally to Branch 18. The third judge didn't "recuse" himself and was the one who issued the rulings that Osmeña raised to the appellate court.

Osmeña argued that the first judge already looked into and found probable cause when it decided to issue a warrant of arrest against Nalzaro, for which his media company SunStar posted bail. The finding of no-probable cause by a third judge in effect reversed the finding of a co-equal court, Tomas contended.

The CA ruling said the prosecutor's finding on "probable cause" was administrative while the judge's finding of "probable cause" was judicial. The judge evaluated, as he must, the resolution of the prosecutor and its evidence.

[3] Judge assesses independently.

When the first judge, finding probable cause, issued the warrant of arrest, he did so when there was no ruling of the secretary of justice yet. After the prosecutor moved to withdraw the information, presenting the DOJ ruling for Nalzaro, the trial court (then presided by another, the third, judge) was bound to assess it.

While the DOJ finding was "persuasive," it was not binding on the courts. The trial court would've committed "a reversible error or grave abuse" if it had not done so and, had the DOJ ruling been adverse to Nalzaro, just proceeded to continue with the arraignment and trial.

THOSE LEGAL PRINCIPLES -- on top of such basics as privileged communication, absence of malice, and Tomas Osmeña being a public figure must not be "onion-skinned" -- should've been known by Osmeña's lawyers as they are not new and are already part of jurisprudence. Yet they pushed on for their client, despite the known legal roadblocks.

Fortunately for journalists who are sued, courts are mostly sympathetic to safeguards of free speech and free press.

The complainant must also know the chances of his case but then, if the purpose is other than to win the litigation, such as afflicting the journalist and his media outlet, full speed ahead he goes.