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Fine, An Alternative Preference Over Imprisonment In Libel

By Atty. Jose D. Aquino

The exercise of judicial discretion in the imposition of an alternative penalty for libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code has gained cognizance. This is shown by the consistent ruling of the Supreme Court in a line of cases. The prevailing trend, depending on the peculiar circumstances obtaining in each case, is to delete the penalty of prison term and, in its stead, impose a fine as the sole penalty. The case of Jose A. Buatis, Jr. vs. People of the Philippines (485 SCRA 275) is illustrative.

The case had its root from a letter dated August 18, 1995 written by Buatis, Jr. and addressed to Atty. Jose J. Pieraz. The import of the words used in said letter, according to Atty. Pieraz, were so insulting and gravely affected his frailing health. Thus, Atty. Pieraz commenced a complaint for libel against Buatis, Jr. before the Regional Trial Court of Pasig City with a prayer that he be compensated for the damage he suffered.

On April 30, 1997, the trial court found Buatis, Jr. guilty of libel and sentenced him to an indeterminate penalty of imprisonment of four months and one day, as minimum, to two years, eleven months and ten days, as maximum, plus damages.

In finding Buatis, Jr. guilty, the trial court ruled that calling a lawyer “inutil,” stupid and capable of using only carabao English is prejudicial to the good name of respondent and affront to his standing as a lawyer as a copy of the libelous letter was furnished other people; the letter is libelous per se since a defect or vice imputed is plainly understood as set against the entire message sought to be conveyed and that Buatis, Jr. failed to reverse the presumption of malice from the defamatory imputation contained in the letter.

Unsatisfied, Buatis, Jr. challenged his conviction before the Court of Appeals. The appellate court upheld entirely his conviction on January 18, 2000 after finding the remarks in the letter malicious and defamatory in character. His contention that the letter is a privileged communication was rejected not only because there was publication but also due to his failure to present a justifiable explanation why he had to use such kind of words.

Undaunted, Buatis, Jr. thereafter filed his Petition for Review on Certiorari before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the prosecution was able to establish all the elements of libel, namely: a) the statement must be defamatory; b) it must be malicious; c) it must be given publicity; and d) the victim must be identifiable.

In holding that the words used in the subject letter to be defamatory, the Supreme Court reasoned out that in using words such as “lousy”, “inutile”, “carabao English”; “stupidity” and “satan,” the letter as it was written casts aspersion on the character, integrity and reputation of respondent as a lawyer which exposed him to ridicule.

The Supreme Court found nothing in the letter regarding the goodness of intention and justifiable motive on the part of Buatis, Jr. sufficient to overcome the presumption of malice in Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code. His letter-reply was published since all concerned were copy furnished. The victim of the libelous letter was also identifiable as it was specifically addressed to Atty. Pieraz himself.

The Supreme Court likewise debunked his allegation that the letter was a privileged communication made in the performance of his moral and social duty. It noted that the letter was crafted in an injurious manner than what is necessary in answering a demand letter. As written, the Supreme Court added, the words had only the effect of maligning Atty. Pieraz’s integrity as a lawyer. It further stressed that a written letter containing libelous matter cannot be classified as privileged when it is published and circulated among the public.

The affirmance of conviction for libel of Buatis, Jr. notwithstanding, the Supreme Court nonetheless modified the penalty meted on him. Impelled by the same reasons behind the imposition of fine instead of imprisonment in Vaca v. Court of Appeals (298 SCRA 656) , a case for violation of BP 22 but found to be relevant to the case, and on the belief that the State is concerned not only in the imperative necessity of protecting the social organization against the criminal acts of destructive individuals but also in redeeming the individual for economic usefulness and other social ends, the Supreme Court deleted the prision sentence on Buatis, Jr. and instead impose a fine of Six Thousand Pesos.

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