Court denies Senator Tolentino’s appeal vs Failon in libel case

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The Court of Appeals (CA) has denied an appeal by former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman and now Senator Francis Tolentino questioning the dismissal of a libel complaint he filed against broadcaster Ted Failon in 2017.

In a six-page resolution dated March 5, the appellate court denied the motion for reconsideration filed by Tolentino, saying its decision on the case last year “stands”.

“In sum, the motion for reconsideration has not raised any matter or cogent argument that we have not already considered and resolved in our decision dated July 7, 2020,” the court said.

In its original decision penned by Associate Justice Pablito Perez, the CA’s 12th Division dismissed the criminal complaint and ordered the Cavite Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 18 to cease and desist from the proceedings.

Aside from Failon, known as Mario Teodoro Etong in real life, the CA also cleared ABS-CBN’s “Failon Ngayon” program story editor and head writer Gerald Oro, segment producer Abigail Lucas-Rondilla and executive producer Irene Grace Manotok.

The libel case involved a report on the purchase of second-hand motorcycles by the MMDA, which Tolentino then headed, “with commentary on the broader context of possible fund misuse.”

A second broadcast of the program prompted a second libel complaint.

In 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled that as media practitioners, Failon and his co-accused lawfully performed the press function of exposing anomalies and irregularities in government.

Tolentino appealed the DOJ ruling while the prosecutors filed a motion to withdraw the information.

Failon took the case to the CA after the lower court judge failed to act on the prosecutors’ motion.

Ruling in favor of Failon and his team, the CA said they had acted within their rights.

“Certainly, if we are to remain faithful to the dictum that public office is a public trust. Some leeway should be given to the public to express disgust or discontent – even if such expression is sometimes acrid, harsh, critical, vitriolic, and accusatory. The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full and free discussion of public affairs,” it said.

The CA also ruled that the lower court erred in saying actual malice is a matter of defense, which is the burden of the accused.

“We reiterate that as an essential element in cases involving public officials with respect to matters within the public’s legitimate interest, it is the burden of the prosecution to allege and prove actual malice,” the court said.

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