The libel tradition

    NO OTHER Christmas gift gave me as much delight as the P20-million libel complaint slapped on Punto!  by businessman Rene Romero arising from my column here titled Romero ululating.

    The article was a rejoinder to Romero’s lamentations contained in a banner story of Sun Star Pampanga over the results of the 2010 Most Outstanding Kapampangan Awards where no winner for business was declared by a five-man board of judges that included me. Romero was nominated for the award for the third time reportedly. And lost in as many.

    Anyways, in this is my seventh or eighth libel case since I went into private media practice in 1987, I am in the company of our GM Atty. Gener Endona, our editor Joey Aguilar, and – surprise, surprise! – marketing manager Ning Cordero.

    As of this writing, December 26, 2010, I have yet to receive a copy of Romero’s complaint so I cannot hazard even just a reaction to it. Hence, I am reduced to generalizations that: 

    We poor, promdi  journalists have pursued our racket with libel hanging like Damocles’ sword over our heads for so long that it has become no big deal really.

    We did not think then – and I still don’t now – of a libel suit as necessarily a tool to harass media. For a time, we even considered it as a badge of honor: a journalist is not worth his name in ink unless s/he’s been sued for libel, so we bragged then.

    Notwithstanding the P500-million libel suit filed against Ashley Manabat by that character that claims ownership the whole republic, any talk on libel hereabouts would invariably focus on the late Ody Fabian and the still un-departed Rizal Policarpio. They set what I wrote in my first book Of the Press  (©1999) as the title of this piece.

    ODY FABIAN owned the most number of suits – five, and the biggest in terms of demand for damages – P25 million. He also held the distinct honor of being the first local mediaman to spend jail time for libel.

    Ody was among the editors and columnists of the Angeles Sun  sued by Mayor Antonio Abad Santos in 1988 arising from his column “The Abad Santos Tapes.”  The charge sheet also included Sonny Lopez for his column “Political Estafa”  and Elmer Cato, publisher-editor.

    In the resolution of the complaint dated January 12, 1989, State Prosecutor Melchor Q.C. Sadang found “…little doubt that the columns in question tend to ascribe to complainant official (Abad Santos) wrongdoing amounting to a crime and behavior unbecoming of a town executive.” And that “Clearly, they cause dishonor, discredit or contempt to the complainant.”

    The complaint however was dismissed for “…the interest of society is of greater importance…as an individual is less than the state, so must criticism be borne for the common good.”

    After the 1995 local elections, losing San Fernando Mayor Paterno Guevarra slapped a P25-million libel suit against Ody and The Voice for bannering a Commission on Audit report detailing anomalous transactions at the municipal hall.

    The banner – complete with the masthead of The Voice – was reproduced by the camp of Guevarra’s rival, subsequent winner Dr. Rey Aquino, and was widely distributed as a campaign material. The complaint was archived.

    Ody shared two libel cases with me and Joe Pavia, publisher of Sun Star-Clark  in 1996.

    The first was lodged by the Mabalacat Water District (MWD) over an article that alleged anomalies in that office ranging from nepotism to incompetence. Our journalism elder, Toy Soto, a consultant of MWD, intervened and the complaint was withdrawn.

    The second was filed by Provincial Attorney Benalfre Galang who felt demeaned, disturbed and dumbfounded by the article “Provincial attorney at worst; bodyguard at best “  which found cause to criticize Galang’s penchant for being always by the side of Gov. Lito Lapid at the expense of his real job. Lapid’s intervention resulted to Galang’s withdrawal of his complaint. Of course, it helped that I was Lapid’s senior consultant then.

    Ody, along with Joey Pavia, was committed to the Angeles City Jail for a little less than a week in 1997 over the libel case filed against him and Sun Star-Clark by Dr. Emmanuel Y. Angeles of the Angeles University Foundation. It was no more than a technicality, indolence rather, that jailed Ody. He failed to present his counter-affidavit on time and his bail bond. Also, Ody wanted to experience a prison cell and write something about it.

    The case stemmed from stories about a Miss Dobson, a female security guard at Clark, who arrived walking at the AUF Medical Center with only a thigh wound  from a gunshot but lay dead a couple of days after. Dobson’s family cried “malpractice” and went to Sun Star-Clark  to air her case. Even as the side of AUF was bannered, a libel case was slapped on Ody.  

    Entered Kapitan Gigil – Ric Serrano, initiator and founding dean of the AUF Institute of Mass Communications  — bringing Angeles to meet Ody in his cell. And the complaint was immediately withdrawn.

    RIZAL POLICARPIO is the only member of whole Pampanga media who holds the honor of going through the whole legal course in a libel case that spanned all of three years.

    In 1981, Rizal reported in Balita  the story of four fishpond caretakers killed by unidentified gunmen in Candaba. A ranking municipal official was implied as the brains behind the killing. That was how the other news stories came out. But Rizal went further. He named the official, one Zosimo Limson, municipal assessor.

    Limson promptly sued and the prosecutor’s office found merit in his complaint and elevated it to the court. In two years of hearings, Limson died. Rizal however found no time to celebrate as the dead plaintiff’s heirs pursued the case.

    What was interesting in Rizal’s case was that his editors were not included in the charge sheet. Rizal fought a lonely battle in court, at times acting as his own counsel.

    Lack of malice saved Rizal from conviction. Three years after he was – in his own word now – “demanded for libel,” the ebullient Rizal proclaimed he got back “my justice, my freedom, my right, my voice, my pen to push again” after Judge Pedro N. Lagui acquitted him.

    ODY and RIZAL exampled the mindset of most of us when it comes to libel: It is the right of anyone to seek legal redress for any grievance, perceived or actual, done him/her by the accused libeler.

    We respect that right.

    Even as we shall equally fight for our right to free expression.   


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