The Supreme Court has ordered the Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) to dismiss the libel complaint filed by the advertising arm of the Yuchengco Group of Companies (YGC) against a group of parents who put up an Internet web site for similarly situated individuals affected by the collapse of Pacific Plans, Inc. (PPI), a pre-need company that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the YGC-owned Great Pacific Life Assurance Corp..
In a 14-page resolution penned by Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, the Court set aside the order of April 22, 2008, finding the amended information to be sufficient in form, and the Joint Resolution of August 12, 2008, denying the motion for reconsideration, of the Makati City RTC, Br. 149. The RTC was directed to quash the amended information and dismiss the internet libel case.
The Court held that venue is jurisdictional in criminal actions such that the place where the crime was committed determines not only the venue of the action but constitutes an essential element of jurisdiction. This principle acquires even greater import in libel cases, given that Art. 360, as amended, specifically provides for the possible venues for the institution of the criminal and civil aspects of such cases. The insufficiency of the allegations in the amended information to vest jurisdiction in Makati becomes pronounced upon an examination of the rationale for the amendment to Art. 360 by RA 4363, the Court stressed.
The Court ruled that to credit private complainant’s premise of equating his first access to the defamatory article on the petitioners’ website in Makati with “printing and publication” would spawn the very ills that the amendment to Art. 360 of the RPC sought to discourage and prevent. The Court noted that it hardly requires imagination to see the chaos that would ensue in situations where the website’s author or writer, a blogger, or anyone who posts messages therein could be sued for libel anywhere in the country that the private complainant may have allegedly accessed the offending website.
“Clearly, the evil sought to be prevented by the amendment to Art. 360 was the indiscriminate or arbitrary laying of the venue in libel cases in distant, isolated or far-flung areas, meant to accomplish nothing more than harass or intimidate an accused. The disparity or unevenness of the situation becomes even more acute where the offended party is a person of sufficient means or possesses influence, and is motivated by spite or the need for revenge,” the Court ruled.
Jessie John P. Gimenez, President of the YGC’s advertising arm Philippine Integrated Advertising Agency, Inc. (PIAA), filed 13 counts of libel on behalf of the Yuchengco Family, particularly Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco and Helen Y. Dee, and of the Malayan Insurance Co. Inc. against the trustees of the Parents Enabling Parents Coalition, Inc. (PEPCI). PEPCI, apparently formed by a large group of affected plan holders, put up www.pepcoalition.com where allegedly libelous articles against the Yuchengco Family, YCG, and Malayan Insurance Co., Inc. were published.
The website became a forum for plan holders to seek redress against PPI which had failed to honor its obligations under the pre-need educational plans. PPI, due to liquidity concerns, filed for corporate rehabilitation with prayer for suspension of payments before the Makati RTC.
The Makati City Prosecutor’s Office, found probable cause to indict. Upon appeal, the Secretary of Justice, in 2007, issued a resolution reversing the finding of probable cause and directed the withdrawal of the informations, saying that the crime of “internet libel” was non-existent.
Petitioners Wonina M. Bonifacio, et al. subsequently filed a motion to quash the libel information on grounds that it failed to vest jurisdiction on the Makati RTC. The Makati RTC quashed the information, but on appeal granted the Gimenez’s motion for reconsideration and ordered the public prosecutor to amend the information to cure the defect of want of venue.
The amended information this time indicated that the said website was “accessible in Makati City” and that the “injurious and defamatory article…was first published and accessed by the private complainant in Makati City.” (GR No. 184800, Bonifacio v. RTC of Makati
, May 5, 2010)