Alcala v. People (G.R. No. 170721, Aug. 23, 2017)


FACTS: On October 1, 1996, Mauro Asedillo (Mauro), then the incumbent Mayor of the Municipality of Kalayaan in Laguna, died of a heart attack. On the next day, a news article on Mauro's untimely demise was published on page 15 of the newspaper The Peoples Journal Tonight. The news article, entitled 'Jueteng & illegal logging' mayor of Laguna dies of heart attack, was written by the petitioner based on the report received from Cambe.

Enraged by the news article, the surviving heirs of Mauro, represented by Emma Asedillo (Emma), filed a criminal complaint for libel 4 against the petitioner and Cambe, the writer and the reporter of the news article, respectively; Guillermo Santos, the editor-in-chief; Alfredo Marquez, the editor; and Danny Hernandez, the news editor, all of The Peoples Journal Tonight.
Subsequently, the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Laguna filed an information for libel in the RTC.

In their defense, the accused, including the petitioner, asserted that they had no intention of maligning the name of the late Mauro; and that in reporting the factual incidents involving the death of the late Mauro, they were only performing their duty to inform the public about the controversies surrounding him. They claimed that the article was based on authentic reports made by the Philippine National Police, as shown by the documents submitted to support their defense.
After trial, the RTC found and pronounced the petitioner and Cambe guilty of the crime charged, but acquitted Santos. It declared the criminal liability of Marquez and Hernandez extinguished by reason of their intervening deaths.

As stated, the CA affirmed the convictions on appeal.
ISSUE: Was the petitioner properly found guilty of libel?

HELD: Yes, petitioner was properly found guilty of libel.

Indeed, the news article and its title were defamatory. The unfounded imputations against the late Mauro would definitely blacken his memory and reputation as a public officer with the distinction of having served the longest as an elected public servant of Laguna up to the time of his death. Such imputations would destroy his legacy as a public servant.

The elements of libel based on Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code are that there must be: (a) a defamatory imputation tending to cause dishonor, discredit or contempt; (b) malice on the part of the offender, either in law or in fact; (c) publication of the defamatory imputation; and (d) identifiability of the person defamed.

The title alone — 'jueteng and illegal logging' mayor of Laguna dies of a heart attack — unerringly depicted the late Mauro as a Municipal Mayor who had operated jueteng and illegal logging activities, or at least condoned such activities. The news article spoke of his being accused of both crimes following the raid conducted at one of his houses during which his brother was arrested for conducting jueteng. The news article linked him to the crime of illegal gambling because the gambling activities had been conducted in his house. What made it worse was that the news article nowhere supported the statement that Mauro had been into illegal logging activities, for the title and the news article did not state the basis of such particular imputation.

Whether a matter is defamatory or not depends on whether or not it ascribes to a person the commission of a crime, the possession of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance which tends to dishonor or discredit or put him in contempt, or which tends to blacken the memory of one who is dead. To gauge if the article is defamatory per se, two precepts of construction are considered and applied, to wit: (a) the construction must be adopted that will give to the matter such a meaning as is natural and obvious in the plain and ordinary sense in which the public would naturally understand what was uttered; and (b) the published matter alleged to be libelous must be construed as a whole.

SECOND ISSUE: Petitioner argues that the news article was not defamatory per se because the phrase jueteng and illegal logging found in the title, which the lower courts cited as the source of the defamatory imputation, was enclosed with single quotation marks; that such marks alerted the readers that the words inside the marks did not signify the ordinary meaning of the enclosed words; and that the marks indicated that the words had only quoted another as the source.

HELD: The presence of the single quotation marks did not render the phrase 'jueteng and illegal logging'' in the title any less defamatory. Indeed, the marks did not affect the ordinary meaning, or the meaning that an ordinary person would give to the phrase, which was that the late Mauro had engaged in activities of illegal gambling and illegal logging. In libel, the courts disregard any subtle or ingenious explanation offered by the publisher upon being called to account, the whole question being the effect the publication had upon the minds of the readers, and they not having been assisted by the offered explanation in reading the article, it comes too late to have the effect of removing the sting, if there be any, from the words used in the publication. In short, the ordinary reader of the article and its title would be incited to believe that Maurongaged in such illegal activities.Moreover, the construction of the article should be based on something more substantial than the single quotation marks. If the construction based on the marks was consistent with the conclusion reached using the two precepts earlier mentioned, then the marks could be used as an additional argument to sustain the construction. Otherwise, if the construction is merely hinged on the marks alone, such construction is not conclusive. Hence, the petitioner could not validly hinge the lack of defamatory imputation on the presence of the marks.
THIRD ISSUE: Is there a presumption that the imputation was malicious?

HELD: Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code presumes that every defamatory imputation is malicious, even if true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown. Consequently, the CA and the RTC both concluded that the presumption of malice or malice in law existed, and that the petitioner did not overcome the presumption.

FOURTH ISSUE: Being a journalist, is there a presumption of good intention or justifiable motive on the petitioner's part?

HELD: The petitioner is grossly mistaken.

The freedoms of expression and of the press were not designed or intended to shield a person from liability for making defamatory statements against another. The Constitution and the law do not extend special treatment to journalists simply because they are journalists. It is the law that requires them to prove their lack of malice, their good intentions and their justifiable motives. This statutory requirement is true for all persons charged with libel, be they seasoned or novice journalists, or struggling campus reporters, or plain and simple citizens. The petitioner, even as a journalist, might have had the duty to inform the public about newsworthy personalities or events, but such duty did not vest him the immunity from liability for defaming another person even if he should prove his good intention or justifiable motive for doing so.

FIFTH ISSUE: Is the report covered by qualified privileged communication?


In his effort to show that the news article should not be presumed to have been maliciously written, the petitioner submits that the news article could be classified as a qualified privileged communication by virtue of its being a fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks on the acts performed by Mauro, a public officer, in the exercise of his functions.

The article did not come under the qualified privileged communication classification simply because the petitioner did not establish the truthfulness of his imputations against Mauro, that is, that the latter had been actually involved in or had been merely accused of the illegal activities. It could not be denied that the petitioner's conclusion about Mauro was based only on incomplete police investigation, but he ignored the incompleteness, and jumped to the conclusion that there had already been an accusation against Mauro or that Mauro had been involved in the illegal activities.
SIXTH ISSUE: Is petitioner excused because he was not the one who published the news article?

Petitioner seeks to avoid criminal liability by insisting that he was not the person who had published the news article, being merely the writer thereof; hence, publication, one of the essential elements of libel, was absent as to him.

HELD: The law on libel fully guards the liberty of the press, and at the same time defends the reputation of the citizen against defamation.

Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code does not limit the liability to the person who writes and publishes the libelous material. The editors and publishers who themselves did not participate in the drafting of the defamatory news articles were as directly liable as the petitioner and Cambe who had written the article. On his part, the petitioner himself came within the ambit of the phrase cause the publication used in Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code because his submission of the news article to the editor and publisher resulted in its publication.

The element of publication means making the defamatory matter, after it is written, known to someone other than the person against whom it has been written. With the petitioner's admission of having submitted the news article to his editors, he published it himself due to the contents being communicated to persons other than to the heirs of the late Mauro.