'Nothing libelous': Lawyer refutes Cusi's indictment over Gatchalian remarks

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 30 2022 01:55 PM

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MANILA — The lawyer of former Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi on Wednesday refuted the findings of the Valenzuela City Prosecutor’s Office indicting his client for cyber libel over remarks against Senator Sherwin Gatchalian.

Ruy Rondain, Cusi’s counsel, said his client insisted there was nothing libelous in his statement published on the Department of Energy website back in February.

In the statement, Cusi claimed Gatchalian has "chosen to lend his ear” to adversarial business interests which allegedly propagated "innuendoes, speculation and hearsay" in the Senate probe.

He also accused Gatchalian of fueling misunderstanding that the Malampaya deals are "defective, lutong macau and graft-ridden.”

Valenzuela City prosecutors said Cusi’s statement supposedly depicted the senator as "dishonest," a "fraud," abusive of his power as senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, and a "corrupt" public official.

But for Rondain, no such allegations of fraud or dishonestly were made.

“He’s a little bit disappointed because he really felt that he said nothing libelous and if you read the statement in its entirety without cherry-picking portions of it, there really is no libel because he never…I don’t understand why the OCP of Valenzuela said that,” Rondain told ANC Rundown in a phone interview.

“There's no single imputation or even innuendo that there was dishonesty on the part of the senator. No imputation that there was fraud, that he was fraudulent. Nothing at all. It only says that he is biased,” he added.

Rondain said his client never called the senator corrupt. 

He explained being called biased or misinformed does not amount to a vice, defect or a crime so as to make the statement libelous.

On the contrary, he said it was Gatchalian who libeled Cusi.

“It’s a bit shocking because if you look at it, it’s the Senator who libeled the Secretary by saying it was lutong-macau, that it’s graft-ridden, etc…Fortunately for him, he’s shielded by legislative immunity,” he said.

Communications during legislative proceedings are considered absolutely privileged so that no cases could be filed arising from any statement made during these proceedings.

Rondain warned the Valenzuela prosecutors’ resolution indicting his client for cyber libel could have a “chilling effect” on those commenting on matters of public interest.

One of the defenses Cusi raised is that his statement was a fair commentary.

“If you can't say that the Senate hearing was unfair, which they normally are by the way, personally I feel they tend to be inquisitorial rather than fact-finding, if you can’t say that, if an ordinary citizen can’t say that, what’s the use of freedom of speech? What’s the use of the fair comment doctrine if you’re gonna get sued anyway?,” he asked.

Rondain also questioned why it was the Valenzuela Office of the City Prosecutor which handled the preliminary investigation when under the law, a libel complaint filed by a government official should be filed in the place where he holds office.

He said Cusi filed a motion for Valenzuela prosecutors to inhibit but it was not acted upon.

In the resolution indicting Cusi, Valenzuela prosecutors said that under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, there was no qualification anymore if the offended party is a private person or a public officer. A complaint for cyber libel may be filed in a province or city where any of its elements have been committed, where any part of the computer system used is located, or where any of the damage took place.

Cusi’s team plans to file a motion for reconsideration with Valenzuela prosecutors and then appeal the resolution before the Department of Justice.

They also plan to move for a 60-day suspension of the trial while their appeal to the Justice secretary is pending.

Rondain said he is ruling out a motion to quash the information because of the limited grounds for filing it.

Cusi and businessman Dennis Uy had previously filed cyber libel complaints against media organizations and journalists who wrote about the filing of graft raps against them before the Office of the Ombudsman in Iloilo.

But Davao prosecutors eventually junked Uy’s complaints while Cusi withdrew the complaints against the media in June this year.