The Tribune’s battle goes to the Supreme Court

Last week, on the eve of the 60th birthday celebration of the Tribune publisher-editor, his counsel in the libel suit filed by SUWECO sent a copy of the Court of Appeal’s decision on the motion for partial reconsideration on its earlier ruling.

It may be recalled that on December 21, 2020, the CA affirmed the conviction for libel of former columnist Rosulo Manlangit and publisher Fernan Gianan, deleting the penalty of imprisonment imposed by the Legazpi City Regional Trial Court and reducing the civil liability and attorney’s fees.

The RTC had awarded to the power firm P8 million in moral damages and P1.265 million in attorney’s fees, aside from imprisonment of one to three years.

In its ruling on the appeal, it reduced the award of moral damages to P1 million and attorney’s fees to P300,000.00.

Manlangit did not file a motion for reconsideration and thus the judgment on his case became final.

Gianan’s counsel, Villanueva Gabionza & Dy Law Offices, filed the motion for partial reconsideration anchored on the following grounds: that SUWECO falls within the ambit of a public figure; that the prosecution failed to prove that actual malice existed on the part of the accused; and that the Tribune is a mere local publication and the damages awarded are exorbitant considering the scale of the publication.

In its latest decision rendered on Jan. 5, 2023, the CA’s Former 4th Division chaired by Associate Justice Mariflor Punzalan-Castillo stressed that SUWECO cannot be considered a celebrity nor a public personage.

“Neither is it an entity that has achieved some degree of reputation by appearing before the public, or has arrived at a position where the public attention is focused upon it as a juridical person,” it said.

The division pointed out that while the libelous article nonetheless dealt with matters involving public interest, it may still be considered a qualifiedly privileged communication which requires proof of actual malice in order that a defamatory imputation may be held actionable.

It also said that the decision of the Pasig City RTC in a similar libel case involving SUWECO and a Catanduanes journalist has no bearing on the Gianan case. In dismissing the suit, the Pasig RTC held that SUWECO is a public figure.

The denial of the motion by the CA means the case will now go to the Supreme Court where, we hope, there would be a better chance of overturning the decision.

This also means the publisher-editor will have to cough up some more cash to pay for the law firm’s expenses in filing the appeal.

Since the case was filed by the island’s lone electricity supplier and its politically powerful owner in 2016, the Tribune publisher has been unable to leave the country even for tourism purposes due to a Hold Departure Order (HDO) issued by the Legazpi RTC.

The last time he asked the appeals court for permission to leave, he was asked to submit a P9 million bond to ensure his return.

He is just fortunate to have the Makati-based law office on his side, thus avoiding the million-peso cost of mounting a respectable legal defense compared to the complainant’s already considerable expense in hiring ACCRALAW since 2016.

We ask loyal readers and the public to be with us in the next few months or years as the Supreme Court considers our appeal.

No battle is worth fighting for than one that could ensure the survival of Catanduanes’ oldest and most credible community newspaper into the next decade.

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