Fiscal junks libel cases vs Tribune

The Taguig City Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the cyber libel cases filed by Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee chief operating officer Ramon Suzara against 17 reporters and editors of the Daily Tribune over their coverage of the country’s hosting of the 30th Southeast Asian Games in 2019.

In a 37-page decision by Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Ju-Haree Tolentino dated 9 December 2021, he ordered that the cyber libel charges against Tribune staff led by publisher Willie Fernandez, executive editor Chito Lozada, former managing editor Aldrin Cardona and sports editor Julius Manicad be dismissed for lack of probable cause.

Fernandez, Lozada and Cardona as well as board chairperson Patricia Ramos and editors Dinah Ventura, Manny Angeles, Jun Vallecera, Trina Ibarle-Orquiza, Mario Mallari and John Henry Dodson were charged with 46 counts of cyber libel while Manicad was slapped with 36 counts.

Former reporter Hananeel Bordey was also acquitted of two counts of cyber libel while reporters Ian Suyu, Kristina Maralit, MJ Blancaflor as well as online editors Elmer Manuel and Dona Policar were also cleared from their respective charges.

Also off the hook are four former Philippine Olympic Committee executives Clint Aranas, Joey Romasanta, Robert Bachmann and Charlie Ho, who served as the Tribune’s sources in the series of stories it published on the alleged irregularities during the biennial meet.

Tolentino said the complainant — Suzara, who ran the country’s hosting of the biennial meet under then-chairperson Alan Peter Cayetano — failed to provide enough evidence to charge the Tribune staff and POC executives with cyber libel.

“However, there is insufficient evidence to charge the respondents for the crime of cyber libel for the alleged defamatory words and imputations they communicated through online platforms against the complainant,” Tolentino said in a decision approved by Acting City Prosecutor Elmer Cris Rillo.

“In libel cases, the question is not what the writer of an alleged libel intended to say, but the meaning of the words used by him.”

Tolentino added that Tribune was merely reporting based on its gathered facts through interviews and documents and did not intend to ridicule or malign Suzara, Cayetano, or the Phisgoc organization.

“The alleged 46 articles in the Daily Tribune and Concept News Central do not show that the complainant and/or the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee were guilty of certain offenses or are sufficient to impeach his honesty, virtue, reputation, or to hold him up to public ridicule,” Tolentino said.

Suzara tried to contest the resolution by filing a Motion for Reconsideration before the Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office.

It, however, was also denied as Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Alan Mangabat said the 24 news articles published by Tribune were “not defamatory in nature.”

“Indeed, from a reading of the subject forty-six (46) news articles, the same is not defamatory in nature as it merely reports the events which are unfolding during the preparation of the SEA Games held in the Philippines,” Mangabat said in a two-page joint resolution approved by Rillo.

“These are considered as fair reports and commentaries on events vested with the public interest. In fact, some articles are based on interviews with sports personalities as resource persons.”

“Wherefore, premises considered, the Motion for Reconsideration is hereby denied. The Resolution of this office dated 9 December 2021 is hereby affirmed.”

‘Fair commentaries’

Suzara claimed that Tribune’s coverage of the SEA Games was a “demolition job” aimed at discrediting him and Phisgoc as an organization.

He complained the articles and commentaries, mostly written by Manicad, from 25 November 2018 to 29 October 2020 were “malicious, defamatory and baseless” that intended to blacken Phisgoc and derail the Games.

Among the articles he cited in his complaint affidavit were about the formation of Phisgoc without the blessing of the POC executive board then headed by Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, the order of former President Rodrigo Duterte to have the Philippine Sports Commission take over the SEA Games hosting, and the bickering within Phisgoc that greatly hampered the biennial meet.

He also cried foul over Tribune’s report on the expensive budget for the construction of the SEA Games cauldron and hotel accommodation that even surpassed the total fund allotted for the country’s hosting in 2005 as well as the sub-par treatment of athletes and coaches in which the national women’s football team were served “kikiam and egg” for breakfast before a crucial competition.

The respondents, however, asserted that they are merely reporting based on documents obtained through various sources as well as statements issued by credible resource persons through actual and telephone interviews.

The “kikiam and egg” story, for instance, was sourced from a television interview by women’s football team head coach Let Dimzon and was also published by several news outlets.

Tolentino junked Suzara’s complaint, saying that Tribune’s articles were only “fair commentaries” on an important issue that has great public interest such as the country’s hosting of the SEA Games.

“After a careful and thorough evaluation and analysis of each and every subject article published and/or written by the respondents, the latter was only expressing fair commentaries impressed with public interest,” he said.

“Some of the news articles are taken or sourced from actual interviews from resource persons.”

Defense taken

Tolentino also stressed that he considered the defenses and arguments presented by the respondents in dismissing the cases.

Angeles, for one, was not responsible for the general layout of the sports section while Ibarle-Orquiza, Vallecera, Mallari did not have a hand in the publication of Phisgoc stories as their tasks were the Nation, Business and Metro pages, respectively.

Blancaflor also had nothing to do with Phisgoc as her role as Malacañang beat reporter was to report the pronouncements made by the Office of the President — not the country’s hosting of the SEA Games.

He added that there is no probable cause to indict the POC officials — Juico, Bachmann, Romasanta, Aranas and Ho — because they do not have a hand in the publication of the alleged defamatory articles.

“The defenses and arguments of respondents Jose Romasanta, Philip Ella Juico, Robert Bachmann, Clint Aranas and Charlie Ho are also well taken,” Tolentino said.

“There is no probable cause to indict them of the crime of Libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, in relation to Section 4 (b) (4) of RA 10175 because they are not the authors/writers of the subject articles from Daily Tribune and Concept News Central.”

“They were merely quoted on the alleged statements by the other respondents.”

Tolentino added that he has to protect the Tribune staff and POC officials from criminal charges based only on “sweeping allegations.”

“After all, ‘the role and object of the preliminary investigation were to secure the innocent against hasty, malicious and oppressive prosecutions, and to protect him from the open and public accusation of crime, from the trouble, expenses and anxiety of a public trial, and also to protect the State from useless and expensive prosecution,” he said.

“Care must be taken in finding probable cause, because ‘the finding of a probable cause by itself subjects life, liberty and property to real risk of loss or diminution.”

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