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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

When journalism turns into a libelous statement: Michael Guy vs. Raffy Tulfo

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Paul Tena
Paul Tena is an alumnus of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Politixxx Today and he also traverses into fiction writing in his spare time. Sometimes he goes by his pen name JPE Tena. His debut novel, The Lore Kingdom, was named an Honorable Mention in 2021 Lampara Prize. For more information, you may reach him via tenajpe@gmail.com.

Our rights end when another person’s rights begin. This is the essence of libel suits wherein persons such as journalists are bound to be accountable for the things that they say especially when bare allegations prove to be unfounded. A perfect example is the case of Michael C. Guy vs. Raffy Tulfo, et.al.

The controversial article

According to the Supreme Court, “Written by Raffy T. Tulfo (Tulfo), the article reported that a certain Michael C. Guy (Guy), who was then being investigated by the Revenue Integrity Protection Service of the Department of Finance for tax fraud, went to former Department of Finance Secretary Juanita Amatong (Secretary Amatong)’s house to ask for help. Secretary Amatong then purportedly called the head of the Revenue Integrity Protection Service and directed that all the documents that the Revenue Integrity Protection Service had obtained on Guy’s case be surrendered to her.”

The article was published by Abante Tonite. Consequently, petitioner Guy included key officials of the tabloid in his complaint. During the trial, the respondents refused to enter a plea. Nonetheless, the case went on and the trial court eventually rendered a decision that convicted the respondents.

The decision of the lower and appellate courts

Both the Makati Regional Trial Court and the Court of Appeals held that Tulfo and his fellow respondents were guilty of the crime of libel. Though the amount of the damages varied, the fact that the article constituted a libelous statement cemented the liabilities of the respondents.

Tulfo and his fellow respondents maintained their position that they are innocent of the crime. Hence, they appealed the decision. On the other hand, petitioner Guy also appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals and prayed that the decision of the trial court to be reinstated. The case further stated that Guy moved for partial reconsideration and clarification of the decision.

The Supreme Court’s decision

The case was partially granted before the highest court of the land. Then, respondents Tulfo et. al. were ordered to solidarity pay petitioner Michael C. Guy: (1) Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00) as moral damages; (2) One Million Pesos (P1,000.000.00) as exemplary damages; and (3) Two Hundred Eleven Thousand Two Hundred Pesos (P211,200.00) as attorney’s fees. The Court exhaustively also discussed the ratio of the damages that the petitioner must be entitled to.

A reminder for journalists

Speaking through Justice Leonen, the High Court reminded, “More often than not, journalists are at the forefront of information publication and dissemination. Owing to the nature of their work, they have the prerogative to shape the news as they see fit. This Court does not turn a blind eye to some of them who twist the news to give an ambiguous interpretation that is in reckless disregard of the truth.”

The Court concluded with a stern reminder, “As such, journalists should observe high standards expected from their profession. They must take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, careful never to deliberately distort facts or context by verifying information before releasing it for public consumption.”

This case should be a reminder to all of us – not just journalists – to verify whatever information that we obtain. In the end, the lessons from the decision of the Court equip us with the proper understanding of the line between mere accusations and the truth about a factual matter.

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