Criminal Law

Erwin Tulfo vs People of the Philippines

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G.R. No. 161032 – 587 Phil. 64; 565 SCRA 132 – Criminal Law – Book II; Revised Penal Code – Crimes Against Honor – Libel – Doctrine of Qualified Privileged Communication

From May to June 1999, Erwin Tulfo published articles in his column in the tabloid REMATE where he accused Atty. Ding So of the Bureau of Customs of corruption. As a result, Atty. Carlos So of the Bureau of Customs sued Tulfo for several counts of libel as he felt that he was the one being referred to in the articles. Tulfo then published another article further accusing Atty. So of corruption.

The Regional Trial Court convicted Tulfo. His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

On appeal before the Supreme Court, Tulfo argued that his newspaper articles were covered by the doctrine of qualified privileged communication which provides that fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in an action for libel or slander. The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable. In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.

ISSUE: Whether or not Tulfo’s articles are protected by the doctrine of qualified privileged communication.

HELD: NO. In order for the doctrine of qualified privileged communication to apply, Tulfo must prove that he was not reckless in writing his articles. He failed to prove lack of recklessness. During his testimony, Tulfo admitted that he based his write ups on a sole informant. Tulfo admitted that he failed to conduct further research to verify his source. Journalists have a responsibility to report the truth, and in doing so must at least investigate their stories before publication, and be able to back up their stories with proof. The rumors and gossips spread by unnamed sources are not truth. Journalists are not storytellers or novelists who may just spin tales out of fevered imaginings, and pass them off as reality. There must be some foundation to their reports; these reports must be warranted by facts.

Thus, Tulfo’s reckless disregard puts his write-ups under libelous category. His articles cannot be considered as qualified privileged communication under the second paragraph of Art. 354 of the RPC which exempts from the presumption of malice “a fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative, or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or any statement, report, or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.”

Tulfo’s bad faith was further highlighted when he published another defamatory article against Atty. So when the latter sued him for libel. Tulfo pushed through with his baseless accusations.

The Supreme Court also emphasized in this case that Errors or misstatements are inevitable in any scheme of truly free expression and debate. Consistent with good faith and reasonable care, the press should not be held to account, to a point of suppression, for honest mistakes or imperfections in the choice of language. There must be some room for misstatement of fact as well as for misjudgment. Only by giving them much leeway and tolerance can they courageously and effectively function as critical agencies in our democracy.

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