THE Supreme Court has decided that a newspaper column written by Cebu broadcaster Leo A. Lastimosa almost 16 years ago was not libelous, thus setting aside the finding of guilt by the Court of Appeals, which earlier affirmed his conviction before the Regional Trial Court.
The SC third division -- in its 18-page decision promulgated December 5, 2022 but publicized only last Monday, April 3 (2023) -- ruled that complainant Gov. Gwen Garcia was not identified or identifiable as “Doling” in the alleged defamatory column.
“There is reasonable doubt as to the element of identifiability, which is necessary for a libel suit to prosper,” said the ruling penned by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa and concurred with by AJs Henri Jean Paul Inting and Samuel Gaerlan. The third member, AJ Japar Dimampao, was on leave.
Three of the four elements of libel were present, the SC said, but the last element -- that the aggrieved person was named or identified -- was missing.
Overall, proof was not “beyond reasonable doubt,” without which a criminal charge would fall.
Related: 1. Seares: What Judge Yrastorza used to convict Leo Lastimosa, September 6, 2013. 2. Seares: Leo Lastimosa's defense, October 8, 2016
DEFAMATORY. First, the column titled “Si Doling Kawatan” was “indeed defamatory,” the court noting that the character Doling in the June 29, 2007 column in The Freeman was described as “abrasive, cruel, arrogant, and, worst, a thief.” There was “no doubt” about it being defamatory, the SC said.
As Journalism 101 instructs, “defamatory” and “libelous” are not synonymous. A defamatory statement must be accompanied with three other elements for the crime of libel to exist.
MALICIOUS. Second, there was malice. Malice, the court said, is presumed because of the defamatory nature of Lastimosa’s article. He wrote about a public official and jurisprudence says “criticisms against public officials or public figures are considered privileged -- and thus malice is not presumed.” But that exception does not apply, the court said, when the criticism “extends to the private life of the public figure.”
Lastimosa wrote about the private life of “Doling”: her dealings with her neighbors, how she was “abrasive with them when she amassed wealth and gained political power,” her having sown fear of her in the community. Lastimosa didn’t comment about the public life of “Doling.” She was supposedly a barangay captain and no criticism about her conduct in office, the ruling said.
WAS PUBLICIZED. Third, there was publicity. The article was published in a daily newspaper, which Lastimosa admitted.
‘DOLING’ MAY NOT BE GWEN. It was in the fourth element -- the identifiability of the victim -- where the high court disagreed with the rulings of the Cebu RTC and the Court of Appeals.
The defendant must have published a defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff. Leo did publish the “offensive” column but was it about Governor Garcia? Was “Doling” Gwen? That was the core of the issue, which was to determine the court’s decision.
The SC found that the “Doling”-as-Gwen identity was not established by the prosecution:
 No third person was presented, which “could’ve established beyond reasonable doubt” that “Doling” and Gwen are the same person. No witness proved that “Doling” was the governor.
 As to the witnesses actually presented, the high court, unlike the RTC and the C.A., didn’t find prosecution witness Glenn Baricuatro’s “feeling” or “belief” about the identity of fishmonger “Doling” enough to prove that she was Governor Gwen. The SC said Baricuatro’s only basis for his “impression” was that “Doling” sounded similar to Gwendolyn, with stress on the name’s second part “dolyn.”
This journalist was summoned to testify regarding a journalism class informal survey on the identify of “Doling,” which he wrote about in a newspaper column. Not one of the students referred to was presented by the prosecution, the court said, thus the testimony was hearsay.
Besides, the SC noted that “the testimony of Atty. Seares, when read in full, was in fact detrimental to the prosecution’s case.” The students in the survey -- who said they believed it was Gwen -- said so only because they heard some radio commentators say that it was Gwen. The other students -- who said they believed it was not Gwen -- had not heard and weren’t influenced by any radio commentator.
AT STAKE IN THE SC CASE, aside from the impact on the litigants’ respective professional and personal reputations: Lastimosa was to pay Governor Garcia damages of P500,000 or half a million pesos, down from the P2 million awarded by Regional Trial Court Judge Raphael Yrastorza Sr. in his August 10, 2013 decision convicting the broadcaster. The whooping damages, on top of the small fine of P6,000.
Imprisonment or stay in jail was not in the RTC and C.A. rulings, except the subsidiary imprisonment if Lastimosa would fail to pay the P6,000 fine, which was a remote possibility. Notably relevant here is the SC standing policy that encourages judges to shun the penalty of jail term for libel unless the judge finds it necessary.
As it turned out though, Lastimosa was acquitted of the crime charged, with the SC’s ruling concluded with: “Let entry of judgment be issued immediately.”
April 06, 2023
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