MANILA - The Court of Appeals has ordered the dismissal of a libel case against ABS-CBN broadcaster Ted Failon filed by Sen. Francis Tolentino over a 2016 commentary linking him to alleged irregularities in the purchase of second-hand motorcycles at the government agency he headed then.
The CA Twelfth Division, in a decision dated July 7, reversed the orders of Tagaytay City Regional Trial Court Branch 18 to proceed with the trial of the case despite a motion from the Department of Justice withdrawing the charge.
In a 26-page ruling penned by CA Associate Justice Pablito Perez, the appellate court concluded that RTC Tagaytay City Judge Jaime Santiago committed "grave abuse of discretion amounting to loss or excess of jurisdiction" when he decided to continue the trial based on a "fatally defective information."
"The decision speaks of free press rights. Ito ay tagumpay para sa lahat ng mamamahayag," Failon told ABS-CBN News when sought for comment.
"Salamat sa mga kapamilya sa ABS-CBN na katulong natin sa pagtatanggol sa kasong ito. This is a bright spot during these dark days," he added.
The CA decision came at a time when ABS-CBN was presenting its case for a new 25-year broadcast franchise before lawmakers, who, among other issues, accused the network of biased reporting.
Despite statements made by relevant government agencies clearing ABS-CBN of any irregularity and delinquency, its franchise application was denied on July 10, prompting the company to announce it would cease operations of some of its businesses and lay off workers beginning Aug. 31, 2020.
HOW THE LIBEL CASE STARTED
Tolentino, who headed the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, filed in December 2016 a complaint for libel with the Tagaytay City Prosecutors' Office against Failon and some of his show's staff members over a Failon Ngayon Dec. 3 and 4, 2016 episode alleging possible fund misuse in the purchase of second-hand motorcycles.
In April 2017, he filed another libel complaint for the Dec. 31 re-broadcast of the episode as part of the show's year-end recap.
In July that same year, the Tagaytay City Prosecutors' Office found probable cause to file a libel charge for the Dec. 3, 2016 episode, and dismissed the second complaint.
Failon appealed to the Department of Justice which ruled in his favor on October 3, 2017, saying probable cause did not exist to file the case. The DOJ said malice was not present because the news team performed their press function of exposing anomalies and irregularities.
The Tagaytay City Prosecutor was instructed to file a motion to withdraw the information, which he did.
But despite the DOJ's motion and Failon's separate motion to quash information, Santiago, the RTC Tagaytay City judge, proceeded with the trial, prompting Failon to go to the Court of Appeals to reverse the RTC ruling.
The Office of the Solicitor General, in a manifestation, sided with Failon.
After examining the records of the case, the Court agreed with the resolution of the DOJ and the OSG's position that there was no basis to continue with the prosecution.
The information, according to the CA, failed to allege all the essential elements of libel as it did not allege actual malice.
The Court ruled that in libel cases involving public officials in the performance of their functions and public figures, the charge should allege that the story published was either a "known lie" or a "calculated" or "reckless falsehood."
And while truth is a defense to libel, the Court held that "[m]ere error, inaccuracy, or even falsity alone, honest mistakes, or imperfection in the choice of language are not necessarily actionable," not even gross or extreme negligence.
The Court pointed out that Tolentino was and still is a public official.
"[I]f we are to remain faithful to the dictum that public office is a public trust, some leeway should be given to the public to express disgust or discontent. Even if such expression is sometimes acrid, harsh, critical, vitriolic and accusatory," read the ruling.
"The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full and free discussion of public affairs," it added.
ABS-CBN reached out to Tolentino and his staff for comment, but is still awaiting reply as of posting time. The staff "will ask" the senator about the request, ABS-CBN was told.