CA modifies verdict in SUWECO cyberlibel case vs. Tribune writers

The Court of Appeals has partially granted the appeal of accused Tribune journalists in the cyberlibel case filed by Sunwest Water & Electric Co., keeping the guilty verdict but removing the jail term and sharply reducing the fine and damages.

In its 40-page decision issued on Dec. 21, 2020, the CA’s Fourth Division chaired by Associate Justice Mariflor Punzalan Castillo modified the April 19, 2018 decision of Judge Ignacio Almodovar Jr. of the Regional Trial Court of Legazpi City, Branch 1, in Criminal Case No. 13781 versus former columnist Rosulo Manlangit and publisher-editor Fernan Gianan.

Finding both accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of libel under Article 355 of the Revsied Penal Code in relation to Section 4(c)(4) of Chapter II of Republic Act 10175, the appeals court sentenced them to each pay a fine of P7,500.00 with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency.

It also ordered the appellants to pay the private complainant, jointly and severally, the amounts of P1 million as moral damages and P300,000.00 as attorney’s fees.

The Tribune publisher will appeal the CA ruling before the Supreme Court.

It may be recalled that on his last day of wearing the black judicial robe before going into what he described as “greener pastures,” Judge Almodovar found the two journalists guilty of cyberlibel for an allegedly malicious article against SUWECO and sentenced them to suffer imprisonment ranging from four months as minimum to three years as maximum.

In what is certainly the largest award of damages in a local libel, the judge ordered the two journalists to “solidarly pay” SUWECO P8 million in moral damages, P1.265 million in attorney’s fees and the cost of the suit.

After filing a bond of P25,000 each for their temporary liberty, the accused filed an appeal with the CA, with Gianan’s counsel, Villanueva, Gabionza & Dy Law Offices, stating that the RTC gravely erred in ruling that SUWECO is not a public figure despite the nature of its business of supplying FICELCO with electricity for the people of Catanduanes.

It likewise argued that the RTC erred in finding that the article did not fall under any of the exceptions despite the subject matter being imbued with public interest and in failing to state clearly and distinctly the facts and the law on which it based the presence of malice.

The RTC also gravely erred in awarding damaged to SUWECO, the counsel averred.

In finding the appeal partly meritorious, the CA Fourth Division held that there is no dispute that the article in question was defamatory and was given publicity, with the victim adequately identified as the subject.

“In this case, SUWECO cannot be considered a celebrity nor a public personage,” it stated, although it agreed that the subject article dealt with matter involving public interest.

The disreputable imputations were not based on established facts, it said, as there was nothing in Manlangit’s sources that even remotely accused or even mentioned that SUWECO bribed FICELCO officers with free wining and dining and with casino chips, or that the former violated a law when it used generator sets in lieu of renewable energy.

In imposing a fine only in lieu of imprisonment, the CA cited the Supreme Court circular occasioned by a trend in jurisprudence indicating an emergent preference for the imposition of fine only rather than imprisonment in libel cases.

On the other hand, the court said it is not persuaded by Gianan’s argument that SUWECO is not entitled to moral damages being a juridical person but agreed that the P8 million award by the trial court as well as the P1,265,000.00 award of attorney’s fees were exorbitant.

In the RTC complaint, SUWECO alleged that the 2016 column written by Manlangit in the Catanduanes Tribune, which attacked FICELCO directors for betraying the trust of member-consumers, conveyed maliciously that SUWECO is offering subpar services and incompetence in supplying electricity to the people of Catanduanes and having committed bribery of FICELCO officers. The article appeared in the tabloid and subsequently in the Tribune website.

SUWECO president and CEO Elizaldy Co, who is now a partylist representative of Ako Bicol, himself announced the filing of the libel case against the two Catandunganon journalists two weeks before the May 2016 elections.

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