Manila Bulletin Publishing Corporation and Ruther Batuigas vs. Victor A. Domingo, et al., G.R. No. 170341, July 5, 2017


On 20 December 1990, Petitioner Ruther D. Batuigas (Batuigas) wrote an article titled “Crucial task for Joe’on’s successor,” which was published by Manila Publishing Corporation (Manila Bulletin). The article dealt with the letter-complaint of the Waray employees of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Regional VIII on the “[m]ismanagement, low moral[e], improper decorum, gross inefficiency, nepotism, etc.” in the office. One of the public officials complained was petitioner Regional Director Victor Domingo (Domingo) who was accused of dereliction of official duties, among others. The “JoeCon” referred to was the outgoing DTI Secretary, Jose Concepcion.

On 4 January 1991, Batuigas wrote in his column titled “A challenge to Sec. Garrucho” about the alleged “lousy performance of Regonal Director R.D. Domingo in DTI Region 8,” among others. Peter Garrucho was the newly appointed DTI Secretary who took over from Jose Concepcion.

Offended by these two articles, Domingo filed, on 18 January 1991, a complaint for libel against Batuigas before the Provincial Prosecutor of Palo, Leyte.

On 7 February 1991, Domingo likewise filed a complaint for Damages before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Palo, Leyte, against Batuigas and the Manila Bulletin.

On 18 March 1991, an Information for libel was filed against Batuigas. The civil and criminal cases were consolidated before RTC 6, Palo, Leyte.

On the witness stand, Domingo denied the allegations against him contained in Batuigas’ articles and claimed that he felt like he was assassinated while his family members were emotionally upset and traumatized. He presented several documentary proof to support his claim that the allegations against him were not true, including resolution of the Office of the Ombudsman dismissing the complaint against him. He claimed that after exoneration by the CSC no other charges were filed against him before any court or body. On the complaint of immorality, similar charges were filed against him but these were also dismissed.

Batuigas took the witness stand for his defense. He described his work as an expose, a product of investigative work. He claimed that he exposes anomalies and other shenanigans in the government and even of private individuals in the hope that corruption in the government might be minimized. He claimed that he only came to know of Domingo when he received several letters of complaint against him and presumed that these were the same letters of complaint filed against him before the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman. Thus, he wrote the questioned articles because he found the complaints to be of public interest as these involved shenanigans committed by Domingo in his office. He no longer had copies of these complaints claiming he lost these when he left the Manila Bulletin.

The RTC found Batuigas guilty of libel and imposed a fine of PHP 6,000.00. Likewise, in the civil aspect, the RTC ordered Batuigas and Manila Bulletin to pay damages to Domingo.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed in toto the decision of the RTC. Their motion for reconsideration was denied.

Hence, this petition for review on certiorari.




The criminal case of Libel

Under our law, criminal libel is defined as a public and malicious imputation of a crime or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. For an imputation to be libelous under Art. 353 of the Revised Penal Code, the following requisites must be present: (a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable.

Elements of Libel explained

An allegation is considered defamatory if it ascribes to a person the commission of a crime, the possession of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance which tends to dishonor or discredit or put him in contempt, or which tends to blacken the memory of one who is dead. In determining whether a statement is defamatory, the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural, and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them, unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense. Moreover, a charge is sufficient if the words are calculated to induce the hearers to suppose and understand that the person or persons against whom they were uttered were guilty of certain offenses or are sufficient to impeach the honesty, virtue or reputation or to hold the person or persons up to public ridicule.

Malice connotes ill will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed, and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm. Malice is bad faith or bad motive. It is the essence of the crime of libel.

There is publication if the material is communicated to a third person. It is not required that the person defamed has read or heard about the libelous remark. What is material is that a third person has read or heard the libelous statement, for “a man’s reputation is the estimate in which others hold him, not the good opinion which he has of himself.” Simply put, in libel, publication means making the defamatory matter, after it is written, known to someone other than the person against whom it has been written. “The reason for this is that [a] communication of the defamatory matter to the person defamed cannot injure his reputation though it may wound his self-esteem. A man’s reputation is not the good opinion he has of himself, but the estimation in which others hold him.”

On the other hand, to satisfy the element of identifiability, it must be shown that at least a third person or a stranger was able to identify him as the object of the defamatory statement. It is enough if by intrinsic reference the allusion is apparent or if the publication contains matters of description or reference to facts and circumstances from which others reading the article may know the person alluded to; or if the latter is pointed out by extraneous circumstances so that those knowing such person could and did understand that he was the person referred to.

Guidepost to determine identifiability, defamatory allegation and malice

For the purpose of determining the meaning of any publication alleged to be libelous “that construction must be adopted which will give to the matter such a meaning as is natural and obvious in the plain and ordinary sense in which the public would naturally understand what was uttered. The published matter alleged to be libelous must be construed as a whole. In applying these rules to the language of an alleged libel, the court will disregard any subtle or ingenious explanation offered by the publisher on being called to account. The whole question being the effect the publication had upon the minds of the readers, and they not having been assisted by the offered explanation in reading the article, it comes too late to have the effect of removing the sting, if any there be, from the word used in the publication.

Fair and true report

The 20 December 1990 article, viewed in its entirety, withholds the finding that it impeaches the virtue, credit, and reputation of Domingo. The article was but a fair and true report by Batuigas based on the documents received by him and thus exempts him from criminal liability under Art. 354(2) of the RPC, viz:

Art. 354. Requirement for publicity. – Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown, except in the following cases:

  1. A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and
  2. A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.

The article cannot be considered as defamatory because Batuigas had not ascribed to Domingo the commission of a crime, the possession of a vice or defect, or any act or omission, condition, status or circumstance which tends to dishonor or discredit the latter. The article was merely a factual report which, to stress, were based on the letter of the Waray employees reiterating their earlier complaints against Domingo and other co-workers at the DTI Region VIII. “Where the words imputed [are] not defamatory in character, a libel charge will not prosper. Malice is necessarily rendered immaterial.”

Based on public records

Parenthetically, it was through the evidence, consisting of public documents, presented by Domingo during the hearing of these cases that it was confirmed that there were indeed complaints filed against him and the other DTI officials before the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman relative to “mismanagement, low morale, improper decorum, gross inefficiency, nepotism.” Although, based on these pieces of evidence, the complaints against Domingo had already been dismissed by the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman, the fact remains that there were actual complaints against him, among others, the particulars of which were those plainly enumerated in the article. True, it was embarrassing that these complaints were disclosed to the public; but equally factual was that these were matters clearly supported by public records.

No identification or defamation

In the statement “[t]hese national employees should be commended for bringing into the open this garbage that has piled [up] in their own backyard,” Batuigas was merely commending the DTI employees who brought into the open their complaints which had already been made known to the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman. It was a fair remark directed to the DTI employees and made no reference to Domingo or imputed to him any defamatory allegation.

On the last three sentences, Batuigas explained that this was only a figure of speech. The statements were obviously addressed to the new DTI Secretary suggesting that he use a chopping board and a Muslim Kris to solve the mounting problems at the DTI office. A plain, natural, and ordinary appreciation of the statements fails to validate the finding that these ascribed something deprecating against Domingo. The sentences merely meant that heads should roll at the DTI office but palpably absent were the identities of those persons. Corollary thereto, the article could not have qualified as libelous because it is the well-entrenched rule that statements are not libelous unless they refer to an ascertained or ascertainable person.

“Alleged” as a qualifier

It must be noted that Batuigas qualified as “alleged” the “shenanigans” of Domingo as referred to in the 20 December 1990 column. By stating that what he had exposed were “alleged shenanigans,” Batuigas unmistakably did not confirm the truth as to the specifics of the complaints made against Domingo or form a conclusion that Domingo actually committed mischiefs or misbehaved in office. Batuigas was merely relying on the documents furnished him by the employees of DTI Region VIII thus, his mention that these were “alleged shenanigans.” On the other hand, the “kalokohan” unmistakably had reference to the “alleged shenanigans”mentioned in the early part of the article considering that both alluded to the exposes in the December column. It is for this reason that a finding that the “kalokohan” was a conclusion of Batuigas as with the “alleged shenanigans,” cannot be sustained.

Personal remarks of the reporter are not privileged under Art. 354, RPC

However, when Batuigas made statements referring to the “lousy performance” of Domingo and his “mismanagement” resulting in the breakdown of morale of the DTI Region VIII employees, the former was actually impeaching the virtue and reputation of Domingo as DTI Regional Director. At that instance, Batuigas was relaying to his readers his comments about Domingo.

Notwithstanding the defamatory imputation in the 4 January 1991 article of Batuigas, Art. 354 of the RPC provides for the instances when its author can be exempted from criminal liability. Evaluated against the exceptions enumerated in Art. 354 of the RPC, it is beyond doubt that the statements of Batuigas as to the “lousy performance” and “mismanagement” of Domingo cannot be considered as either private communication or a report without any comments or remarks. The Court hastens to add, however, that the exceptions in Art. 354 of the RPC are not exclusive since jurisprudence provides for the additional exceptions to the privileged communications, viz: in Borja v. Court of Appeals, where it was held that in view of the constitutional right on the freedoms of speech and of the press, fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged; and in Guinguing v. Court of Appeals, where the remarks directed against a public figure were ruled as privileged.

Absolutely Privileged Communication is not actionable even if the author acted in bad faith

A privileged communication may be classified as either absolutely privileged or qualifiedly privileged. The absolutely privileged communications are those which are not actionable even if the author has acted in bad faith. This classification includes statements made by the members of Congress in the discharge of their functions as such, official communications made by public officers in the performance of their duties, and allegations or statements made by the parties or their counsel in their pleadings or motions or during the hearing of judicial proceedings, as well as the answers given by the witnesses in reply to questions propounded to them, in the course of said proceedings, provided that said allegations or statements are relevant to the issues, and the answers are responsive or pertinent to the questions propounded to said witnesses.

Qualifiedly privileged communication merely prevents the presumption of malice. Thus, proof of actual malice is required for libel to attach.

The qualifiedly privileged communications are those which contain defamatory imputations but which are not actionable unless found to have been made without good intention or justifiable motive, and to which “private communications” and “fair and true report without any comments or remarks” belong. Since the qualifiedly privileged communications are the exceptions to the general rule, these require proof of actual malice in order that a defamatory imputation may be held actionable. But when malice in fact is proven, assertions and proofs that the libelous articles are qualifiedly privileged communications are futile, since being qualifiedly privileged communications merely prevents the presumption of malice from attaching to a defamatory imputation.

The conduct, moral fitness, and ability of a public official to discharge his duties are undoubtedly matters of public interest for he is, after all, legally required to be at all times accountable to the people and is expected to discharge his duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty; and to act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest. Indeed, as early as 1918, the Court had already laid down a legal teaching recognizing the right to criticize the action and conduct of a public official, viz:

The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience. A public officer must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can the intelligence and dignity of the individual be exalted. Of course, criticism does not authorize defamation. Nevertheless, as the individual is less than the State, so must expected criticism be born[e] for the common good. Rising superior to any official or set of officials, to the Chief Executive, to the Legislature, to the Judiciary – to any or all the agencies of Government – public opinion should be the constant source of liberty and democracy.

Libel vis-à-vis Freedom of Speech and of the Press

It is for this reason that, when confronted with libel cases involving publications which deal with public officials and the discharge of their official functions, this Court is not confined within the wordings of the libel statute; rather, the case should likewise be examined under the constitutional precept of freedom of the press. But if the utterances are false, malicious, or unrelated to a public officer’s performance of his duties or irrelevant to matters of public interest involving public figures, the same may give rise to criminal and civil liability. In contrast, where the subject of the libelous article is a private individual, malice need not be proved by the plaintiff. The law explicitly presumes its existence (malice in law) from the defamatory character of the assailed statement.

Statements of Batuigas are matters of public interest; thus, plaintiff has the burden to prove actual malice

The statements on the “lousy performance” and “mismanagement” of Domingo are matters of public interest as these relate to his moral conduct, his capacity to lead the DTI Region VIII employees, and to manage and supervise the affairs of the office. These statements undoubtedly make it to the grade of qualifiedly privileged communication and thus, would require actual malice to be actionable. It must be stressed, however, that once it is established that the article is of a privileged character, the onus of proving actual malice rests on the plaintiff who must then convince the court that the offender was prompted by malice or ill will.

In Disini v. The Secretary of Justice, the Court explained “actual malice” as follows:

There is “actual malice” or malice in fact when the offender makes the defamatory statement with the knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. The reckless disregard standard used here requires a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the accused in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement he published. Gross or even extreme negligence is not sufficient to establish actual malice.

Records cannot sustain a finding that Domingo was able to establish that Batuigas had actual malice in writing this article. Batuigas testified that sometime in the latter part of 1990 and until 1991, he received letters of complaint denouncing Domingo. Although Batuigas was not able to present these letters during the hearing of these cases it can be rationally deduced that he was in actual receipt of the complaints against the DTI Region VIII officials and employees because he was able to cite the specifics of the grievances of the Waray employees in his 20 December 1990 article. Presumably, too, the letters that Batuigas received were those complaints that had been dismissed by the CSC and the Office of the Ombudsman, and with the corresponding resolutions evidencing the dismissal of these complaints having been presented by Domingo during the hearing of the cases.

No actual malice if the statements are an expression of opinion based on established facts

It was evident that the statements as to the “lousy performance” and “mismanagement” of Domingo cannot be regarded to have been written with the knowledge that these were false or in reckless disregard of whether these were false, bearing in mind that Batuigas had documentary evidence to support his statements. Batuigas merely expressed his opinion based on the fact that there were complaints filed against Domingo, among others. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.

Fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged; a valid defense in action for libel or slander

Moreoever, these statements were but fair commentaries of Batuigas which can be reasonable inferred from the contents of the documents that he had received and which he qualified, in his 20 December 1990 article, to have been brought already to the attention of the DTI, CSC, and the Ombudsman. Jurisprudence defines fair comment as follows:

To reiterate, fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in an action for libel or slander. The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable. In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.

Mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity does not prove actual malice; ill will must be personal

True, the complaints had already been dismissed by the government offices tasked to resolve these, and of which fact Batuigas had not been informed when he wrote the 20 December 1990 and 4 January 1991 articles; but it must be pointed out that even assuming that the contents of the articles were false, mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity alone does not prove actual malice.

In order to constitute malice, ill will must be personal. Domingo testified that he did not personally know Batuigas or had met him before.

When cross-examined, Domingo reiterated his earlier testimony that he had no dealings with Batuigas, or had not personally met or spoken with him.

The absence of personal ill will of Batuigas against Domingo disavows actual malice and buttresses the finding that Batuigas was prompted by a legitimate or plausible motive in writing the articles. It was pointed out that Batuigas characterized his writing akin to an expose where he revealed anomalies and shenanigans in the government in the hope that corruption might be minimized. Moreover, Batuigas had no reason to doubt that R. de Paz, the sender of the letter containing the complaints against Domingo, did not exist considering that the letter was signed by one claiming to be R. de Paz.

Good faith is a defense

Art. 354 of the RPC provides that good intention and justifiable motives are defenses for defamatory imputation even if it be true. Batuigas was able to firmly establish his defenses of good faith and good motive when he testified that, after he received several letters of complaint against Domingo, he came up with the said columns because he found the complaints on the shenanigans by Domingo at the DTI to be of public interest. Batuigas’ defense was reinforced by the records bereft of any showing that the prosecution offered evidence to support a conclusion that Batuigas had written the articles with the sole purpose of injuring the reputation of Domingo.

In his 16 January 1991 article titled “The other side of DTI 8 issue,” Batuigas acknowledged that he might have been used by the detractors of Domingo due to their failure to establish a prima facie case against the Regional Director. In the same article, Batuigas quoted portions of the separate letters sent to him by Zaldy Lim and Lions International Deputy Vice-Governor Prudencio J. Gesta, who both denied the allegations against Domingo. Additionally, Batuigas had written the 16 January 1991 article before Domingo could file criminal and civil cases against him and the Manila Bulletin. These truths evidently refuted malice or ill will by Batuigas against Domingo.

The failure of Batuigas to counter-check the status of the complaints against Domingo was indeed unfortunate, but such failure cannot be considered as enough reason to hold him liable. While substantiation of the facts supplied is an important reporting standard, still, a reporter may rely on information given by a lone source although it reflects only one side of the story provided the reporter does not entertain a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity. Domingo, who had the burden of proving malice, was not able to present proof that Batuigas had entertained awareness as to the probable falsehood of the complaints against him (Domingo.) Indeed, on the basis of the documents in Batuigas’ possession, which were actually complaints against Domingo, Batuigas wrote his comments on Domingo’s “lousy performance” and “mismanagement.” The Court thus finds it significant to restate its legal teaching in Vasquez v. Court of Appeals, viz:

A rule placing an accused the burden of showing the truth of allegations of official misconduct and/or good motives and justifiable ends for making such allegations would not only be contrary to Art. 361 of the Revised Penal Code. It would, above all, infringe on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. Such a rule would deter citizens from performing their duties as members of a self-governing community. Without free speech and assembly, discussions of our most abiding concerns as a nation would be stifled. As justice Brandeis has said, “public discussion is a political duty” and “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”

For sure, the words “lousy performance” and “mismanagement” had caused hurt or embarrassment to Domingo and even to his family and friends, but it must be emphasized that hurt or embarrassment even if real, is not automatically equivalent to defamation; words which are merely insulting are not actionable as libel or slander per se, and mere words of general abuse of power however approbrious, ill-natured, or vexatious, whether written or spoken, do not constitute bases for an action for defamation in the absence of an allegation for special damages. If a writer in the course of temperate and legitimate criticism falls into error as to some detail, or draws an incorrect inference from the facts before him, and thus goes beyond the limits of strict truth, such inaccuracies will not cause judgment to go against him, if the jury are satisfied, after reading the whole publication, that it was written honestly, fairly, and with regard to what truth and justice require. Domingo must remember that one of the costs associated with participation in public affairs is an attendant loss of privacy.

It may be well for us to keep in mind that the rule on privileged communications in defamation cases developed because “public policy, the welfare of society and the orderly administration of justice” have demanded protection for public opinion. “While the doctrine of privileged communication can be abused, and its abuse can lead to great hardships, to allow libel suits to prosper strictly on this account will give rise to even greater hardships. The doctrine itself rests on public policy which looks to the free and unfettered administration of justice. It is as a rule applied liberally.” Equally important is the following pronouncement which this Court had consistently reiterated, to wit:

A newspaper especially one national in reach and coverage, should be free to report on events and developments in which the public has a legitimate interest with minimum fear of being hauled (sic) to court by one group of another on criminal or civil charges for libel, so long as the newspaper respects and keeps within the standards of morality and civility prevailing within the general community.

To avoid the self-censorship that would necessarily accompany strict liability for erroneous statements, rules governing liability for injury to reputation are required to allow an adequate margin of error by protecting some inaccuracies. It is for the same reason that the New York Times doctrine requires that liability for defamation of a public official or public figure may not be imposed in the absence of proof of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the libelous statement.

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