SC Acquits Raffy Tulfo of Libel Charges

June 29, 2021

Championing the freedom of speech and of the press, the Supreme Court has acquitted Raffy T. Tulfo of the crime of libel. Tulfo wrote a series of articles in  his “Shoot to Kill” column in Abante Tonite on the alleged illegal activities of a Bureau of Customs (BOC) lawyer.

The Court, however, also reminded all media practitioners of the standards expected of them as provided for under the Philippine Press Institute‟s Journalist Code of Ethics and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

“We regard the vital role that the media plays in ensuring that the government and its officials remain true to their oath in carrying out their mandates in a manner prescribed by law…Nevertheless, the constitutionally protected freedoms enjoyed by the press cannot be used as a shield to advance the malicious propagation of false information carried out by unscrupulous entities to injure another‟s reputation, the Court stressed.

In 1999, Tulfo wrote several articles on the alleged shady dealings in the BOC particularly on the reported extortion activities against brokers and shippers, as well as a supposed illicit affair, involving Atty. Carlos T. So of the BOC.

“Petitioner Tulfo reported the alleged illegal activities of Atty. So in the exercise of his public functions. Our libel laws must not be broadly construed as to deter comments on public affairs and the conduct of public officials. Such comments are made in the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the press…Public officers are accountable to the people, and must serve them „with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest  lives.‟  Speech  that  guards  against  abuses  of  those  in  public  office  should  be encouraged. Petitioner Tulfo should be acquitted,” held the Court.

In the decision penned by Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, the Court‟s Third Division ruled that “the prosecution failed to prove that petitioner Tulfo acted with malice, or with reckless disregard in determining the truth or falsity of the imputations.”

The Court held that the allegations all refer to acts related to Atty. So‟s official functions at the BOC. It further held that reading the articles as a whole, the statements indicate Atty. So‟s alleged use of connections to stay in position and conceal his misconduct. They were written to end his purported abuse of public position.

“From these, it can be deduced that the impugned articles fall within the purview of qualified privileged communications. These columns relate to Atty. So‟s exercise of his official functions. His alleged actuations refer to matters of public interest which the citizenry ought to know,” the Court said.

Having established the privileged nature of the Abante Tonite articles, the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove that actual malice exists.

The Court further held that Tulfo‟s testimony on cross-examination does not show that the allegations were false, or that they were made with reckless disregard of ascertaining whether the statements were false or not. His testimony that no administrative case was filed against Atty. So does not mean that the statements in the articles were false.

The Court stressed that every prosecution for libel “must undergo the rigorous and exacting standard of ensuring that it does not violate the fundamental right to free speech and the press.” Unless the prosecution proves that the defamatory statements were made with actual malice, a criminal case for libel against critics of a public officer‟s exercise of official functions cannot prosper.

Thus, the Court granted Tulfo‟s petition to reverse and set aside the March 17, 2009 Amended Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA), which had affirmed the conviction of Tulfo, Abante Tonite publisher Allen A. Macasaet, and managing Nicolas V. Quijano.

The Court also acquitted Macasaet and Quijano since Tulfo, the author of the impugned articles himself, was found not guilty of libel. However, the Court set the record straight on the seeming confusion as to what accounts for liability for libel under Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).

The Court held that when the accused has been specifically identified as “author, editor or proprietor” or “printer/publisher” of the publication, there is no requirement to prove that they had knowledge and participation in the publication of the article. Thus, a claim of absence of participation by those responsible under Article 360 of the RPC will not shield them from liability. It stressed: “The law is clear: These persons are liable for libel as if they were the author of the defamatory writing.”

The three were charged by So before a Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC), which convicted them of 14 counts of libel and imposed on them the penalty of imprisonment and fine.

On appeal, the CA affirmed the RTC conviction in its July 31, 2006 Decision. Subsequently, on a motion for reconsideration, the CA issued the subject March 17, 2009 Amended Decision, acquitting the three accused on eight counts of libel, but sustained their conviction for the other criminal cases. They elevated the matter to the High Court.

“The need to protect freedom of speech and of the press cannot be understated. These freedoms are the most pervasive and powerful vehicles of informing the government of the opinions, needs, and grievances of the public. It is through these guarantees that the people are kept abreast of government affairs. Without these rights, no vigilant press would flourish. And without a vigilant press, the government‟s mistakes would go unnoticed, their abuses unexposed, and their wrongdoings uncorrected,” said the Court.

(G.R. No. 187113, Tulfo v. People; G.R. No. 187230, Macasaet and Quijano, Jr. v.

So and People, January 11, 2021) READ FULL TEXT: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/19553/