MANILA – The Supreme Court has ordered Raffy Tulfo and 7 newspaper executives of tabloid Abante Tonite to pay P1.5 million in damages and more than P200,000 in attorney’s fees over an inaccurate 2004 article accusing a businessman of approaching a government official to stop a tax fraud case against him.
The award includes P1 million in exemplary damages to businessman Michael Guy, owner of MG Forex Corporation, one of the largest non-bank foreign exchange firms in the country.
“This case comes at a time when the credibility of journalists is needed more than ever; when their tried-and-tested practice of adhering to their own code of ethics becomes more necessary, so that their truth may provide a stronger bulwark against the recklessness in social media,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said in the decision dated April 10, 2019 but made public only recently.
“Respondents, then, should have been more circumspect in what they published. They are not media practitioners with a lack of social following; their words reverberate,” he added.
The case stems from a March 24, 2004 column where Tulfo accused Guy of asking the help of then-Finance Secretary Juanita Amatong to halt an investigation by the Department of Finance’s Revenue Integrity Protection Service (RIPS) into allegations of tax fraud.
Tulfo claimed Guy visited Amatong who then called the head of RIPS to order the surrender of documents related to the tax fraud investigation.
But CA found RIPS only investigates officials of DOF and its attached agencies and could not have probed Guy who was not a government official.
“It only goes to show that respondents did not verify the information on which the article was based,” the decision said.
Guy had asked the Supreme Court to increase the amount of damages awarded by the Court of Appeals in its June 2014 amended decision, which only ordered Tulfo and the others to pay P500,000 in moral damages of P211,200 in attorney’s fees.
SC affirmed the award of moral damages and attorney’s fees but also imposed exemplary damages.
The P500,000 in moral damages was to compensate for the mental pain and suffering or mental anguish Guy might have gone through as a result of Tulfo’s article.
He claimed he suffered social humiliation and anxiety with his 77-year-old mother castigating him for disgracing their family while his children were supposedly quizzed in school about the article.
But the Court noted he failed to prove tainted reputation and loss of clientele, that’s why he was given only P500,000 and not the P5 million moral damages the trial court had originally granted.
The high tribunal however agreed with the CA in deleting the trial court’s award of P5 million in actual damages intended to compensate for monetary loss suffered, as it found that Guy failed to prove his loss.
The executives ordered to pay Tulfo are: Allen Macasaet, Nicolas Quijano, Jr., Janet Bay, Jesus Galang, Randy Hagos, Jeany Lacorte, and Venus Tandoc.
Tulfo and the executives did not appeal their conviction to the Supreme Court, hence, their criminal liability was not raised as an issue. Only Guy asked for a higher amount of damages.
In allowing Guy to appeal the amount of damages, the Court explained that normally, in criminal cases, only the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) can represent the State in actions brought before the CA or SC and a private offended party cannot appeal the criminal aspect of the case.
But the Court allowed Guy’s plea even without the participation of the OSG because his sole purpose was to question the civil aspect of the case and not the criminal conviction. A criminal case, it said, has both a civil and criminal aspect.
This means private offended parties, on their own, can ask for higher amount of damages even if the convicted parties did not appeal ruling.
REMINDER TO JOURNALISTS
In its decision, the Court took pains to underscore the importance of journalists in a democracy.
“Journalists are the sentinels who keep watch over the actions of the government. They are the eyes and ears of the citizenry. In today’s digital age, the work of journalists is held to higher standardard more than ever. Beyond the multitude the participate on social media, they have value as part of a profession that should be trusted with the truth,” read the decision.
“Nevertheless, the probing done by journalists must be made ‘with good motives and for justifiable ends,’” it added.
But it also has a few words for Tulfo and the executives.
“This Court can only hope that respondents appreciate the privilege their fame has brought them and, in the future, become more circumspect in the exercise of their profession,” it said.