KEY POINTS. [1] Broadcaster Arnold Bustamante asked the audience in his November 8, 2021 radio program not to buy herbal products with a specified brand from La Nueva retail stores. The distributors suspected the stores were selling imitations of their product and "ordered" Bustamante to warn people about it. He did, La Nueva filed a complaint for cyber-libel, the DYHP anchorman was arrested and released on bail.

[2] Bustamante relies on the defense that he was "merely instructed" by his client, whose products he endorsed, and was well-intentioned as his warning would caution people on health safety. The retail stores argue that the distributors were wrong; they were not ordering new stocks of the herbal products as much of their old stocks were still unsold.

THE ARREST. The police Anti-Cybercrime Group arrested Bustamante last Friday, September 23, 2022, in Barangay Apas, Cebu City. RTC Judge Ramon Daomillas Jr. issued the arrest warrant against Bustamante, a news reporter and anchorman of DYHP RMN Cebu, who also reports news for SunStar Superbalita [Cebu] and CCTN TV.

La Nueva Supermart Inc., La Nueva Drugstore Chains Inc. and their representative Robinson Y. Uy earlier filed the complaint against Bustamante and herbal products distributor Bellgian Marketing and its representative Noel Villaceran.

The three complainants and three respondents, except Bustamante, were at the time unnamed in news stories, probably because (a) reporters didn't have yet a copy of the information on which the arrest was based and (b) statements from DYHP and the beat reporters group, which condemned the arrest, didn't also identify them.

Bustamante allegedly made defamatory statements against the retail outlets, saying they were selling a fake version of the distributors' herbal products. Distributor Bellgian and rep Villaceran -- who, Bustamante said, ordered him to broadcast the warning -- were not included in the indictment recommended by Assistant City Prosecutor Lovey Lady L. Villanueva and approved by City Prosecutor Liceria S. Lofranco-Rabillas.

It was a case of libel, which complainants brought as cyber-libel because they were "communicated by computer," not just by radio broadcast, and obviously because the kind would exact a higher penalty.

SIDE ISSUES. These media-related side issues, already raised in some forums, though unlikely to be resolved in the court, were what people talked about:

[] Broadcasters endorsing products. When Bustamante warned against the selling of fake herbal products in his program of November 8, 2021 (4:38 a.m. and 5:31 a.m.), he did so as part of his work as anchorperson and as concession to a "major advertiser." The format of his program "Unang Radyo, Unang Balita" -- a mix of news and commentary -- allows the inclusion of the warning that the marketing firm wanted to be announced.

The initial questions raised in public forums include this: whether what Bustamante did was normal practice in the industry, with the anchorman-product endorser bending the journalism rule against mixing news and commentary.

[] Police handling of the arrest: DYHP, in a statement of general manager Atty. Ruphil Banoc, called as malicious any "conjecture" that Bustamante was evading arrest. Banoc says anyone who knows the reporter-anchorman can say Bustamante is "not like a hardened criminal who'll think of escaping when the case is one where bail is a matter of right." Bustamante "religiously followed the rules of criminal procedure" so that police won't waste resources on him, Banoc said.

No specific mention of police group or officials from DYHP but the Defense-PNP Press Corps (DEPP), one of the reporters' groups under the umbrella of Cebu Federation of Beat Journalists (CFBJ), was direct and on-target.

DEPP, in its "position letter" signed by DYLA's Nestle L. Semilla, "condemned the actions of the Anti-Cyber Crime Group" for "maliciously" releasing mug shots and inaccurate press releases to the media about Bustamante's arrest. He surrendered, the reporters insist, rejecting the police unit's claim that it had to form an "Oplan Tracker" to arrest Bustamante. The group's chief, Brigadier General Joel B. Doria, congratulated his men, to show it was a major effort that deserved applause.

MAIN ISSUE: LIABILITY IN COURT. The side issues can distract, as they have in the Bustamante case. The central issue, of course, is whether what Bustamante said on radio was defamatory and, if it was, whether it was libelous. His liability in court is what matters to the police who arrested him, even as he's presumably accountable for his actions to his profession and his audience, his employers and rules of the industry.

Bellgian Marketing and Villaceran were cleared because, the prosecutors ruled, there was "no showing they were in any way in connection" with Bustamante when he made the broadcast. Meaning, the claimed instruction from the distributor was not proved. The broadcaster's claim in his counter-affidavit, the prosecutors said, was "self-serving." Bustamante was the person with the mic, the one "who uttered the libelous words."

THE DEFENSE. Bustamante in his counter-affidavit "vehemently denied" the accusations against him. He said that what he broadcast was "per instructions by the Cebu distributor" of the herbal products. Information about their being fake "was merely given" to him and he was "instructed" to announce it during his program. It was part of his job as program host and the herbal products are among their "major sponsors." And he was also concerned, he said, about the safety of consumers and it was "his job to warn the public to be careful and not to buy fake products."

Atty. Banoc, the broadcaster's GM, told Media's Public Tuesday, September 27, "Arnold's warnings were part of the endorsement he made for the product because he was under instruction by the distributor." Banoc said the case is "actually" between La Nueva and the herbal product distributor. "Arnold was just hit by the crossfire," Banoc said. The prosecutors didn't see it his way.

PRESS FREEDOM CARD. Significantly, neither the DYHP statement nor the defense-police reporters' "position letter" used the PF or press freedom card.

Banoc and Semilla didn't call it harassment or oppression of media. They pushed that Bustamente didn't try to flee, he surrendered. Both deplored that police treated the accused broadcaster "like a common criminal." Banoc talked about the RMN management's "full trust" in Bustamante, conceding that a libel case "is very much part of the job." Media can't invoke press freedom each time a member of the flock conflicts with authorities.

More significant on industry practice is the standard on how far the advertiser is allowed to influence a radio program's content and still be exempt from accountability. And yes, the capacity of the individual radio commentator or reporter to distinguish criminal libel from product boosting.

Bustamante thought he was doing something good for public safety but apparently, La Nueva didn't think it was good for its stores' reputation. What matters in the libel trial will be the alleged defamation and the broadcaster's malice, or absence of it. Distinction between "arrest" and "surrender," or whether the police deliberately wanted to shame Bustamante with the release of mug photos, is argued somewhere else.


Disclosure: Atty. Seares is executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC). The views in the article are his and don't reflect the stand of CCPC, a collegial body.