Libel; malice in law; malice in fact

In Co v. Muñoz (G.R. No. 181986, December 04, 2013), the Court of Appeals (CA) has acquitted Muñoz of libel because his statement is a privileged communication. In libel, the existence of malice is essential as it is an element of the crime.[1] The law presumes that every imputation is malicious;[2] this is referred to as malice in law. The presumption relieves the prosecution of the burden of proving that the imputations were made with malice. This presumption is rebutted if the accused proved that the imputation is true and published with good intention and justifiable motive.[3]

There are few circumstances wherein malice in law is inapplicable. For instance, Article 354 of the RPC further states that malice is not presumed when:
  1. A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty;[4] and
  2. 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 of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.[5]
Jurisprudence supplements the enumeration in Article 354 of the RPC. In Borjal v. CA,[6] it was held that in view of the constitutional right on the freedoms of speech and of the press, fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged. In Guingguing v. CA,[7] it was ruled that the remarks directed against a public figure are likewise privileged. In order to justify a conviction in libel involving privileged communication, the prosecution must establish that the libelous statements were made or published with actual malice or malice in fact – the knowledge that the statement is false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.[8] In other words, the rulings in Borjal and Guingguing show that privileged communication has the effect of destroying the presumption of malice or malice in law and consequently requiring the prosecution to prove the existence of malice in fact.In Co v. Muñoz (G.R. No. 181986, December 04, 2013), the CA declared that the libelous remarks are privileged. The legal conclusion was arrived at from the fact that Co is a public figure, the subject matter of the libelous remarks was of public interest, and the context of Muñoz’ statements were fair comments. Consequently, malice is no longer presumed and the prosecution has the burden of proving that Muñoz acted with malice in fact. The CA found that the prosecution failed in this respect.

Co assails the CA’s ruling by raising arguments that essentially require a review of the CA’s factual and legal findings. However, the Court could not review the findings without going against the requirements of Rule 45 with respect to factual matters, and without violating Muñoz’ right against double jeopardy given that the acquittal is essentially anchored on a question of fact.

In light of the privileged nature of Muñoz’ statements and the failure of the prosecution to prove malice in fact, the High Court ruled that there was no libel that was committed by Muñoz. Without the crime, no civil liability ex delicto may be claimed by Co that can be pursued. There is no act from which civil liability may arise that exists.

[1] In Daez v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 47971, October 31, 1990, 191 SCRA 61, 67, the Supreme Court held that there is libel only if the following elements exist: (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.

[2] Article 354 of the RPC.

[3] First paragraph, Art. 354, Revised Penal Code.

[4] Art. 354(1), Revised Penal Code.

[5] Art. 354(2), Revised Penal Code.

[6] 361 Phil. 1 (1999).

[7] 508 Phil. 193 (2005).

[8] 361 Phil. 1 (1999) and 508 Phil. 193 (2005).