RTC Pasig City junks SUWECO libel suit vs. Catanduanes broadcaster

The Regional Trial Court in Makati City has junked a libel suit filed by Sunwest Water & Electric Co. (SUWECO) against a lady broadcaster in Catanduanes who had posted an allegedly malicious article on Facebook in 2018.

In her ruling, RTC Pasig City Branch 159 Presiding Judge Elma M. Rafallo-Lingan acquitted Padaba FM blocktimer Janelyn Victoria Rima for failure of the prosecution to prove her guilt beyond reasonable doubt for the crime of libel in relation to Section 4(c)(4) of Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

In filing the suit in January 2019, the power company had alleged that on or about June 2018, the accused had posted in her FB accoung statements containing false, malicious, and highly defamatory imputations against the complainant.

The post had declared that SUWECO was former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s favored contractor during her presidency and that it was behind the creation and organization of the AKB Party List which was allegedly organized to gain mutual benefit from the latter’s pork barrel funds and to secure several contracts with the government.

It also attributed to Rima remarks alleging the implementation of anomalous schemes for the sole purpose of generating profit, which purportedly caused the high generation charges in electricity bills in Catanduanes.

In its ruling, the Court said that while there is no doubt that SUWECO, FICELCO and Ako Bikol Partylist and their shareholders/members were identified in the Fb post of the accused, a careful examination of the statements will reveal that there were no defamatory remarks uttered that are directly attributed to SUWECO.

The statements merely referred to SUWECO as the leading Independent Power Producer in Catanduanes, that it is owned by Elizaldy and Christopher Co, that it was a contractor during the Arroyo regime, that it constitutes the AKB, and that it is a business concern, it stated.

“These remarks cannot be considered defamatory because there is nothing in the statements that will ascribe 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 private complainant SUWECO,” Judge Rafallo-Lingan emphasized.

She added that a plain reading of the post will readily show that the message which the author would like to share to the public is the outcry of concerned residents of Catanduanes towards the poor electricity services of FICELCO in their province, coupled with a call to join the Catanduanes People’s Organization Working for Energy Reforms in pushing for a true democratic electric cooperative.

The Court noted that SUWECO, in providing reliable electricity supply to the public, has attained the status of a public figure, thus, the remarks directed against it as a public figure are considered privileged in view of the constitutional guarantee on the freedoms of speech and of the press.

The RTC decision on Rima’s case comes three years after the RTC Legazpi City Branch 1 Acting Presiding Judge Ignacio Almodovar Jr. took the side of SUWECO in finding Tribune publisher Fernan Gianan and former columnist Rosulo Manlangit guilty of libel in relation to the cybercrime law

The duo were sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison and to pay SUWECO more than P9 million in moral damages and attorney’s fees.

Judge Almodovar, who issued the ruling on his last day in office before he retired, stated that SUWECO is not a public figure “since it has been proven to be a private corporation albeit supplying FICELCO with electricity.”

The Court of Appeals later modified the ruling, removing the penal sanction and reducing the award but affirming the guilty verdict.

The case is on appeal before the Supreme Court.

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