HERE'S how the basis of the Supreme Court decision acquitting Cebu broadcaster Leo Lastimosa of libel may be plainly summed up:
 The Cebu journalist defamed a person he called "Doling," supposedly a barangay captain-fish vendor.  He did so publicly and maliciously.  But the complainant, Governor Gwendolyn Garcia, who said she was "Doling," was not named and was not identifiable in the allegedly offensive article.
The prosecution proved three essential elements of libel, the SC said, in its ruling, which was uploaded last week, on April 3, 2023, though promulgated December 5, 2022 yet. But they failed to prove the fourth and last essential element: identify of the person libeled. The woman whom Lastimosa allegedly defamed was not identified "beyond reasonable doubt."
Among the unanswered questions was, as a colleague put it, "If it wasn't the governor defamed, who was Leo referring to?"
That and a few other questions are being raised by some news consumers who've watched the case since Guv Gwen went to court over the Lastimosa article published in the Freeman of June 29, 2007, for which the Cebu Regional Trial Court convicted Leo in 2013 and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in 2016.
Related: Seares: Supreme Court overturns broadcaster Leo Lastimosa’s conviction in lower courts. ‘No libel’ committed against Governor Garcia in 2007 column; ‘Doling’ not identifiable as Gwendolyn. (April 6, 2023). Seares: What Yrastorza used to convict Lastimosa (September 6, 2013). Seares: Lastimosa’s defense (October 8, 2016).
 IF 'DOLING' WASN'T (GWEN)DOLYN ... then who the heck was "Doling"? Lastimosa wouldn't have spent an entire column for a long blind item, with all the defamatory statements in it, without a specific target in mind.
The writer must have a particular woman to throw the brickbats at even if Leo presented an unidentified, fictitious persona possibly, to the inquisitive and suspicious reader, to avoid the consequence of defamation.
"Doling" -- described in the 2007 column titled "Si Doling Kawatan" as a fish vendor and barangay captain -- clearly didn't match the attributes of the governor. That didn't stop though some people from thinking that "Doling" was Gwendolyn.
 TESTIMONIES THAT 'DOLING' WAS GWEN. The complainant governor herself testified that she was the one referred to as “Doling” as she had long been the subject of criticisms in Lastimosa's radio broadcasts and newspaper columns. But her identification didn't count as the law required that to come from a third person.
Glenn Baricuatro, a former Capitol official, was supposed to be the third person. His identification of "Doling" as Gwen was accepted by the RTC, which convicted Leo, and by the CA, which affirmed the lower court's finding. (The CA kept the penalty of P6,000 fine but lowered the damages, from P2 million to P500,000,) The CA accepted the prosecutors' claim too, ruling that the requirement of a third person recognizing or identifying the party defamed was met by presenting Baricuatro.
The SC, however, considered Baricuatro's testimony inadequate, as his "sole" basis for his "impression" that "Doling" and Gwen were one and the same was similarity of sound -- "auditory similarities" -- of the names "Doling" and ‘Dolyn’ (in Gwendolyn).
 HOW ABOUT STUDENTS IDENTIFYING GWEN? I wrote a column in SunStar on July 19, 2011 that an informal classroom survey among 15 mass-com students showed that nine of them thought "Doling" was Gwen while the rest said they believed she was not.
That column item apparently prompted the governor's lawyers to tap me as their witness. Upon learning that, I wrote a second column, explaining that my students at UP Cebu learned about the supposed identity of "Doling" from radio commentators.
Answering a subpoena, I testified that "the students said it was the governor because they heard some commentators say 'Doling' was the governor." The other students, who answered "no," said they didn't have enough knowledge about the issue but believed a fish vendor couldn't be the governor.
RTC Judge Raphael Yrastorza Jr., in his ruling, considered me "an independent witness." The SC justices, in theirs, said my testimony was "even derogatory" to the prosecution as it explained how the students formed their opinion. Besides, the SC ruling said, no student was presented and thus their opinion, which I had published, was "hearsay."
 REQUIREMENT OF 'IDENTIFIABILITY' is "already complied with even if just one other person identifies the plaintiff as the subject of the defamatory words." But, the SC added, "it is material how such third person was able to make the connection between the writing and the plaintiff." In other words, it wasn't enough for Baricuatro to identify "Doling" as Gwen; he should've also shown that his basis was sufficient.
The additional requirement must have been lost on some lawyers, including the prosecutors. Not on the SC justices. The high court cited Ogie Diaz vs. People (of May 25, 2007, GR #159787, in which the SC rejected the third person's claim that a "Miss S" was the complainant "Patricia Santillan," without evidence other than her screen name had a last name that starts with "S." Comparing it to the Lastimosa case, the SC said Baricuatro's basis was only the similarity in sound of "Doling" and ‘Dolyn.
 CITATION OF PAST ATTACKS. To help boost the claim that Lastimosa was targeting the governor and "Doling" was Gwen, the prosecution presented other "Arangkada" articles by the journalist. There was "consistency" in Leo's previous attacks against her, the prosecution alleged, they were "personal and below the belt."
The RTC accepted the argument, saying Lastimosa's "older articles" about Gwen "further established" that "he views Garcia" the same way he depicted "Doling," thus: "corrupt, arrogant, vindictive, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed and cruel."
The CA ruling also mentioned Leo's "negative articles and commentaries" against the governor and the “circumstances” under which the "offensive" article was published. They "bolstered the inference" that Lastimosa was "motivated by revenge or ill-will."
The SC, however, disagreed, saying that Lastimosa's "previous articles" didn't "establish beyond reasonable doubt" that "Doling" and Gwen are the same person. The reason: They are "not the articles subject of this libel case." The court said, "That 'Doling' refers to Garcia is not a logical conclusion of the fact that Lastimosa had previously written about Garcia."
 'HIGH RESPECT' FOR TRIAL COURT'S FINDINGS. In favoring the complainant, the CA had pointed out the "jurisprudential rule" that when "the credibility of a witness is in issue," how the trial court assesses and weighs the evidence is "accorded high respect."
That was included as part of the quotation lifted from the CA decision. But the SC didn't comment on it. Meaning, Lastimosa's past attacks against the governor didn't bear on the SC's own conclusion about the defamed person's identity.
 WINNER DOESN'T 'TAKE IT ALL.' Who won and who lost? Did the winner "take it all"?
Lastimosa won in the Supreme Court although he lost in the RTC and the CA. That means he doesn't have to pay the fine of P6,000 and damages of half a million pesos. But the litigation took almost 16 years, with pleadings in three courts and trial in two. Even with his employer's help and reported fund contributions from his supporters, the lawsuit must have seriously hurt Leo's personal finances.
Stress and emotional toll because of distraction from work and threat of being jailed -- which hangs despite the SC policy encouraging judges not to impose imprisonment as penalty unless compellingly necessary -- may not be quantified but no sued journalist had said the ordeal wasn't painful.
In the bar of public opinion, each camp has its own share of plaudits and criticisms -- and the respective spins of the decision.
Lastimosa can say he was vindicated, as Governor Garcia could've said she was too when the RTC and the CA found Leo guilty in the first two stages of the courtroom drama.
Capitol could say the SC also ruled with finality that what Leo wrote was defamatory and malicious. That he got away with it could reflect on skill of craft: the journalist's and his lawyer's.
April 12, 2023
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