Facts: In this petition for review, we are asked to reverse the Court of Appeals in “Francisco Wenceslao v. Arturo Borjal and Maximo Soliven,” holding that petitioners Arturo Borjal and Maximo Soliven are solidarily liable for damages for writing and publishing certain articles claimed to be derogatory and offensive to private respondent Francisco Wenceslao who served as a technical adviser of Congressman Fabian Sison, then Chairman of the House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Industrial Policy.
Petitioners Arturo Borjal and Maximo Soliven are among the incorporators of Philippines Today, Inc. (PTI), now PhilSTAR Daily, Inc., owner of The Philippine Star, a daily newspaper. At the time the complaint was filed, petitioner Borjal was its President while Soliven was (and still is) Publisher and Chairman of its Editorial Board. Among the regular writers of The Philippine Star is Borjal who runs the column Jaywalker.
Private respondent Francisco Wenceslao was elected Executive Director First National Conference on Land Transportation (FNCLT) to be participated in by the private sector in the transport industry and government agencies concerned in order to find ways and means to solve the transportation crisis.. As such, he wrote numerous solicitation letters to the business community for the support of the conference.
Between May and July 1989 a series of articles written by petitioner Borjal was published on different dates in his column Jaywalker. The articles dealt with the alleged anomalous activities of an “organizer of a conference” without naming or identifying private respondent. Neither did it refer to the FNCLT as the conference therein mentioned.
Private respondent filed a criminal case for libel against petitioners Borjal and Soliven, among others but was dismissed. He then instituted against petitioners a civil action for damages based on libel subject of the instant case. Trial court decided in favor of private respondent Wenceslao. Petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration but the Court of Appeals denied the motion. Hence the instant petition for review.
ISSUE: W/N the “Jaywalker” articles constituted privileged communications as to exempt the author from liability.
HELD: YES. In order to maintain a libel suit, it is essential that the victim be identifiable although it is not necessary that he be named. It is also not sufficient that the offended party recognized himself as the person attacked or defamed, but it must be shown that at least a third person could identify him as the object of the libelous publication. The questioned articles written by Borjal do not identify private respondent Wenceslao as the organizer of the conference. Identification is grossly inadequate when even the alleged offended party is himself unsure that he was the object of the verbal attack.
Assuming arguendo that private respondent has been sufficiently identified as the subject of Borjal’s comments, Indisputably, petitioner Borjal’s questioned writings are not within the exceptions of Art. 354 of The Revised Penal Code for, as correctly observed by the appellate court, they are neither private communications nor fair and true report without any comments or remarks. However this does not necessarily mean that they are not privileged. To be sure, the enumeration under Art. 354 is not an exclusive list of qualifiedly privileged communications since fair commentaries on matters of public interest are likewise privileged. The rule on privileged communications had its genesis not in the nation’s penal code but in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press. As early as 1918, in United States v. Cañete, this Court ruled that publications which are privileged for reasons of public policy are protected by the constitutional guaranty of freedom of speech. This constitutional right cannot be abolished by the mere failure of the legislature to give it express recognition in the statute punishing libels.
Fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in an action for libel or slander. The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable. In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.
Primarily, private respondent failed to substantiate by preponderant evidence that petitioner was animated by a desire to inflict unjustifiable harm on his reputation, or that the articles were written and published without good motives or justifiable ends. On the other hand, we find petitioner Borjal to have acted in good faith. Moved by a sense of civic duty and prodded by his responsibility as a newspaperman, he proceeded to expose and denounce what he perceived to be a public deception. Surely, we cannot begrudge him for that. Every citizen has the right to enjoy a good name and reputation, but we do not consider that petitioner Borjal has violated that right in this case nor abused his press freedom.