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 discredit or cause the dishonor or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. Consequently, the following elements constitute libel: (a) imputation of a discreditable act or condition to another; (b) publication of the imputation; (c) identity of the person defamed; and, (d) existence of malice. The glaring absence of maliciousness in the assailed portion of the news article subject of this case negates the existence of probable cause that libel has been committed by the PDI staff.
As previously stated, Judge Cruz initiated the complaint for libel, asserting the falsity and maliciousness of the statement in a news report that “(a)ccording to Mendoza, Cruz still has a pending case of sexual harassment filed with the Supreme Court by Fiscal Maria Lourdes Garcia, also of the Makati RTC.” It can be easily discerned that the article merely reported the statement of Mendoza that there was allegedly a pending case of sexual harassment against Judge Cruz and that said article did not report the existence of the alleged sexual harassment suit as a confirmed fact. Judge Cruz never alleged, much less proved, that Mendoza did not utter such statement. Nevertheless, Judge Cruz concludes that there was malice on the part of the PDI Staff by asserting that they did not check the facts. He claimed that the report got its facts wrong, pointing to a certification from the Deputy Court Administrator attesting to the pendency of only two administrative cases against him, both of which bear captions not mentioning sexual harassment.
A newspaper should not be held to account to a point of suppression for honest mistakes, or imperfection in the choice of words. While, indeed, the allegation of inappropriate sexual advances in an appeal of a contempt ruling does not turn such case into one for sexual harassment, we agree with petitioners’ proposition that the subject news article’s author, not having any legal training, cannot be expected to make the fine distinction between a sexual harassment suit and a suit where there was an allegation of sexual harassment. In fact, three other newspapers reporting the same incident committed the same mistake: the Manila Times article was headlined “Judge in sex case now in physical injury rap”; the Philippine Star article described Judge Cruz as “(a) Makati judge who was previously charged with sexual harassment by a lady prosecutor”; and the Manila Standard Article referred to him as “(a) Makati judge who was reportedly charged with sexual harassment by a lady fiscal.”
The questioned portion of the news article, while unfortunately not quite accurate, on its own, is insufficient to establish the element of malice in libel cases. We have held that 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 present when it is shown that the author of the libelous remarks made such remarks with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity thereof.
The lack of malice on the part of the PDI Staff in the quoting of Mendoza’s allegation of a sexual harassment suit is furthermore patent in the tenor of the article: it was a straightforward narration, without any comment from the reporter, of the alleged mauling incident involving Judge Cruz. The subject article was, in fact, replete with other allegations by Mendoza of purported misconduct on the part of Judge Cruz. Except for the above-quoted statement, Judge Cruz did not find the other assertions by Mendoza as reported by the PDI article to be libelous:
At around 2 p.m., Mendoza said, an employee at Cruz’s court fetched him to the judge’s chamber.
He was walking along the corridor when Cruz looked out, saw him, and yelled, “Mendoza, halika nga rito (come here).”
“He dragged me to his chamber and locked the door. Tatlo kami doon, kasama ang sheriff niya na si Nory Santos,” Mendoza said.
Inside, Mendoza said Cruz began taunting him, asking him, “Matigas ba ang dibdib mo, ha? (Do you have a strong chest?)” Mendoza said, (h)e was made to sit in a guest’s chair in front of Cruz’s desk. He recalled seeing placed on top of a side table a .99mm and a .45 caliber pistol which he presumed to belong to the judge.
While standing, Mendoza said the judge began punching him, at the same time subjecting him to verbal abuse. The first punch was at the left side of his chest, the second at the right. The third was at his left knee, then last was at the right knee, Mendoza said.
His right knee was still swollen as of yesterday.
“Hinamon pa niya ako, square daw kami,” he said. “At hindi daw niya ako titigilan at ipapatanggal pa daw niya ako (He even dared me to a fight. He threatened me that he would not stop until I am fired from my job),” Mendoza said.
“Kung anak pa daw niya ang nakalaban ko, babarilin na lang daw niya ako sa sentido at babayaran na lang ako (He said if it was his son with whom I quarreled, he would have simply put a bullet to my head and paid for my life).”
In Borjal v. Court of Appeals, we held that “[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 to court by one group or 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.” Like fair commentaries on matters of public interest, fair reports on the same should thus be included under the protective mantle of privileged communications, and should not be subjected to microscopic examination to discover grounds of malice or falsity. The concept of privileged communication is implicit in the constitutionally protected freedom of the press, which would be threatened when criminal suits are unscrupulously leveled by persons wishing to silence the media on account of unfounded claims of inaccuracies in news reports.