WHAT HAPPENED. The Supreme Court released Tuesday, February 8, a high-profile decision the high court promulgated in July last year yet.

The ruling (G.R. #229440, dated July 14, 2021) threw out the 20-year-old civil libel case Juan Ponce Enrile filed against Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), two reporters and three editors.

The "offensive" news story alleged that Enrile, former senator and defense secretary, was a "Marcos crony" who benefited from the coco levy funds. The SC said the news story (titled "No to coconut levy agreement") was "certainly not libelous": there was no malice in publishing the article.

Reporters Donna Cueto and Dona Pazzibugan wrote the story published in PDI's issue of December 4, 2001, which cited a statement from the Commission on Good Government (PCGG) that opposed the coco levy agreement, alleging that it would allow "Marcos cronies, such as Enrile," to keep their "plundered loot." (The RTC dropped Pazzibugan as her contribution to the article didn't cover the "defamatory" statement.)

[1] TWO NEWSBREAKS ON SAME RULING. PDI reported the SC ruling story last January 1 yet, apparently basing it on the copy of the decision given to the media outlet as party to the case. The other media did not pick up the 2022 New Year's Day newsbreak. They ran the story only last week.

The story was reported in the other media -- including CNN, Rappler, Facebook, Abogado and PNA -- last Thursday, February 10, two days after the SC uploaded the ruling's full text, with a press release, on its website on SC decisions.

Was the pickup too late? It had a fresh news peg: the official release by the high court.

[2] LOWER COURT'S PDI-ADVERSE FINDINGS. Two lower courts had said the media outlet and its journalists -- including editors Artemio Engracia Jr., Abelardo Ulanday and then editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc -- committed libel.

The Makati City Regional Trial Court ordered the defendants to pay a total of P2 million moral damages and P.75 million exemplary damages and attorney's fees. The Court of Appeals upheld the RTC ruling but reduced moral damages to P1 million and the other damages to P0.3 million.

PDI went to the SC with a petition for certiorari, which in effect alleged the lower courts were wrong and acted in excess of its authority or abused its discretion. The high court struck down the RTC and CA rulings and cleared the defendants-appellants of wrongdoing -- and saved it from paying P1.3 million damages.

[3] JOURNALISM 'LAPSES.' From the RTC and CA decisions, the newspaper and its journalists were cited for "lapses" in handling the story, notably in the alleged failures:

[a] Failure to verify if then PCGG chief commissioner Haydee Yorac (1941-2005) indeed said the statement attributed to her. Yorac "vehemently denied" in public the quote, writing to the newspaper that its reporters "did not interview me... in person or by telephone."

Another commissioner, from 2001 to 2004, Ruben Carranza, was the source of the news, according to reporter Cueto. Carranza, also a former assistant defense secretary, from 1998-2000, is now director of Reparative Justice Program at International Center for Transitional Justice.)

[b] Failure to verify if the statement of one commissioner was the sentiment of the entire PCGG. The alleged defamatory statement attributed to Yorac was made on a Sunday, December 2, 2001, which she then noted should've cautioned the reporter to verify if it was "a commission statement."

Reporter Cueto testified she was asked by then commissioner Carranza "to immediately release the statement." What she would verify, she said, is the source of the information and not the contents. She was "surprised" by Yorac's denial because she "thought all along that commissioner Carranza "had the go-signal" of Yorac. Cueto confronted Carranza who said he'd give a sworn affidavit, presumably how the information was released.

[c] Failure to answer the "repeated" demands of Enrile for PDI to correct the news story. Enrile, said the RTC ruling, "had no recourse" but to file the lawsuit. If true, the paper denied Enrile his basic right of reply, or at least the courtesy of an answer.

The SC rooted for a free press in its ruling and cleared the defendants-appellants of libel. But it stressed that it wasn't saying there were "no shortcomings on the part of Inquirer" and its reporters and editors.

[4] ELEMENTS THE SC DIDN'T FIND. The CA agreed with the RTC that the PDI story imputed "reprehensible act" to Enrile and portrayed him as "plunderer," "looter," "possessor of ill-gotten wealth" and "Marcos crony." The high court disagreed.

Not that the words were not defamatory but the paper and its journalists didn't say them or were responsible for them.

The news report merely repeated the statement of Yorac. Even though Yorac disowned the statement and another commissioner was credited for it, that didn't make, the SC said, the statement of the reporter and her paper.

The SC also didn't find malice, which means "ill will or spite ... not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed." It was not shown by Enrile that the author made the remarks "knowing it was false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity."

It requires the absence of only one of four elements to knock down a complaint for libel. In the Enrile case, there were two elements not established: defamation and malice.

[5] ENRILE HAD TO PROVE MALICE. Under the general rule (Revised Penal Code, Article 354), every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious. Except: when it is "privileged communication," which the PDI news story was.

The SC said the news article about the coconut levy funds was "a fair report on matters of public interest" and therefore "a qualifiedly privileged communication." Quoting Yambot vs Tuquero, the SC said "It was a straightforward narrative without comment from the reporter."

Enrile was a public figure and even if he was not at the time, the subject was a "matter of national interest." It was his burden to prove that the paper and its journalists were motivated by "ill-will and spite" or actual malice.

[6] ERROR, EVEN FALSITY, DOES NOT PROVE MALICE. Assuming that part of the PDI news story turned out to false, "mere error, inaccuracy, or even falsity alone" does not prove malice. "Errors or misstatements are inevitable in any scheme of truly free expression and debate."

Failure of reporter Cueto and her paper to counter-check or verify does not per se make the reporting malicious, the SC said. A reporter "can rely on information given by a lone source although it reflects only one side of the story" provided he or she does not have a "high degree of awareness" of its probable falsehood.

The SC noted that while the news story turned out to be false on the identity of the commissioner -- it was Carranza, not Yorac -- "the same (statement) was handed by no less than a PCGG commissioner who attest(ed)" that it was PCGG's or made by the PCGG chairperson.

[7] WHAT IF IT WERE NEW MEDIA? The quotation that leads off the high court's decision, penned by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, is like a flag being waved for a free press: "The newspapers should be given such leeway and tolerance as to enable them to courageously and effectively perform their important role in our democracy. -- Chief Justice Ricardo Paras."

The Enrile ruling was a case about newspapers. What if the alleged libel were committed by digital media or even social media, where there are no editors gate-keeping content and writers are not bound by standards of fairness and verification? Would the courts be as zealous in defining the latitude of media in its function?