By JOSE MA. D. NOLASCO
Former Executive Editor
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) management makes a bad call, press freedom suffers a setback, and a radio/TV personality gets away with a weak libel case.
A retired Inquirer top editor has deplored the PDI management’s decision to settle what he described was an untenable libel case filed by a radio/TV personality in connection with the newspaper’s investigative report on the P10-billion pork scam.
“It seems the PDI management got suckered into accepting a compromise deal that is demeaning to the brand and lopsidedly favorable to Melo del Prado, a broadcaster of dzBB Radio-TV GMA Network,” former Executive Editor Jose Ma. D. Nolasco said in a press statement.
Under the terms of the compromise, the PDI management agreed to run an apology to Del Prado on the Inquirer front page, expunge from the PDI archives 10 pork barrel stories/sidebars related to his libel complaint, and pay him damages worth P1.5 million in ad space.
In return, Del Prado agreed to drop his libel complaint against Nolasco, former Inquirer News Editor Artemio T. Engracia Jr., Inquirer.net Editor in Chief Abel S. Ulanday, Inquirer Reporter Christine O. Avendano and former Inquirer Reporter Nancy C. Carvajal.
“The PDI management conceded too much to Del Prado even though his libel case appears weak and, as described by Engracia’s lawyer-friends, dismissible,” said Nolasco, who retired as the leader of the Inquirer Newsroom in 2019.
“It’s a bad call by the PDI management, a setback for press freedom and a sad day for Philippine journalism,” said Nolasco.
“Instead of fighting out the libel case in court and standing by the multi-awarded Inquirer series on the graft-ridden congressional pork barrel, the PDI management has chosen the path of least resistance and now finds itself at the losing end,” he added.
For his part, Del Prado was overjoyed on the morning of July 30 upon reading on the Inquirer front page the PDI management’s apology to him over the newspaper’s 2014 news reports alleging he had benefited from the pork barrel scam.
“We appreciate the statement published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer and posted on Inquirer.net. That’s a welcome development. We are happy that with this clarification, we can finally put this issue to rest,” the broadcaster said.
Del Prado’s libel suit had been prompted by what he cited were inaccuracies in the Inquirer’s March 19, 2014 story, “Pork payoffs to newscasters Erwin Tulfo, Del Prado, others bared: 2 broadcasters got checks from Nabcor,” which was based on Carvajal’s interviews with two officials of National Agribusiness Corp. as well as documents that they submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman.
In his libel complaint that he filed five months later, Del Prado argued that allegations of corruption against him were false, malicious and injurious to his reputation.
Raul C. Pangalangan, the then PDI publisher, wasn’t impressed. He said the Inquirer was standing by the news story as “it was fully supported by the statements of two witnesses” and “it was published after a careful investigation by our reporters and editors.”
“In investigating and exposing the pork barrel scam, the Inquirer is motivated only by its commitment to report the truth to the Filipino people for the common good and the welfare of the nation,” Pangalangan, a former dean of the UP College of Law and judge of the International Criminal Court, said in his statement.
PDI reverses stance
After seven years of litigation, however, PDI Chair Raul J. Palabrica decided to reverse management’s position. The turnaround, he said, was upon the advice of the company’s legal counsel “to settle the case because we do not have evidence to support our defense.”
Citing the legal counsel’s grim assessment, Palabrica urged all the five respondents to sign the compromise agreement with Del Prado.
Nolasco, Engracia and Carvajal refused to sign, saying there was more than sufficient evidence to debunk Del Prado’s lawsuit.
In an eight-page letter he wrote Palabrica on Feb. 22 this year, Nolasco pointed out that a reading of Inquirer stories related to Del Prado’s complaint and the Supreme Court rulings on libel would show “it’s not our defense which is indefensible but Del Prado’s case which is unsustainable.”
For all intents and purposes, Del Prado’s libel case has no leg to stand on, Nolasco told Palabrica.
Main arguments in letter
Here are the main arguments in Nolasco’s letter to Palabrica on why the compromise settlement is unwarranted, unreasonable and unprincipled.
Ultimate test for libel. The Supreme Court has set a high bar for public figures like Del Prado to prove libel so the press will not be hampered from performing its watchdog role and hindered in serving the people’s right to know about matters of public concern and public interest — like the pork barrel scandal.
As plaintiff, it is incumbent on Del Prado to present incontrovertible evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendants — the key element of libel.
In other words, Del Prado’s claim of defamation requires proof beyond reasonable doubt that the Inquirer reporters and editors actually knew that the information on which they based their stories was false or they acted with such disregard for the truth or falsity of the information as to rise to the level of recklessness.
Unless Del Prado hurdles this ultimate Supreme Court test for libel, all the evidence that he has presented to back his defamation suit will be for nothing.
Adherence to journalistic standards. What is evident from the March 19 story and subsequent news articles, however, is not a flagrant display of reckless attitude or utter disregard for journalistic standards on the part of the Inquirer editors and reporters but their adherence to stringent guidelines on verification.
These included observing the two-source rule, relying on official documents to support serious allegations, avoiding anonymous sources, disclosing relevant information on sources, soliciting comments from all sides of a story, promptly clarifying misstatements and correcting errors to set the record straight.
The stories also show the Inquirer editors and reporters sought other sources to sort out allegations of corruption against Del Prado; they vetted these allegations before publishing them; and they accorded the broadcaster fair treatment and equal play at every opportunity.
Front-page apology. With Del Prado sorely lacking proof of actual malice, a front-page apology to him, his family, his radio-TV network and his media colleagues is unjustifiable.
To begin with, the Inquirer had already redressed Del Prado’s grievance by consistently printing his side of the controversy and merging this in stories of the pork scam series.
As a matter of editorial policy, the same treatment had been accorded other media personalities who also had misgivings about the Inquirer coverage.
It has been a longstanding Inquirer practice that an apology on the front page may be warranted only if there is a gross lapse of journalistic standards on the part of the editorial staff.
Clarifications/corrections involving honest mistakes/errors/inaccuracies/ misstatements like the ones in our March 19 story, however, may be written as sidebars to or incorporated into news articles. Lacking a news peg, similar corrections accompanied by a brief statement of regret may be placed in the Letters to the Editor section.
Not entitled to damages. Since there is no showing that the Inquirer reporters and editors were only out to vex, harass or shame Del Prado, then there is no valid reason for the PDI management to pay him damages worth P1.5 million in ad space.
The Supreme Court has earlier ruled that public figures like Del Prado must prove actual malice for them to be entitled to damages “without offending press freedom.”
“Damages in our view could not simply arise from an inaccurate or false statement without irrefutable proof of actual malice as element of the assailed publication,” the high court has said.
Purging of news stories from archives. Most deplorable among the terms of the compromise settlement is the expunging from the Inquirer archives of 10 news articles, including “Timeline — Pork Barrel Scam, An Inquirer Special Report,” and “Timeline: Napoles and the Pork Barrel Scam.”
As steward of the Inquirer brand, the PDI management would be shirking its responsibility of preserving the integrity of the inewspaper’s archives if it purges from the record these 10 articles.
And to think these news stories form an integral part of the Inquirer’s widely praised and multi-awarded investigative report on how hundreds of lawmakers had pocketed billions in kickbacks by allocating their pork barrel funds for fictitious projects.
These news articles on graft and greed comprise the Inquirer’s biggest scoop of the last two decades. They are the stuff excellent Inquirer journalism is made of — agenda-setting, fearless, fair, balanced, comprehensive, gripping, relevant, documented, multisourced, synergistic, collaborative.
If the PDI management is hell-bent on massaging Del Prado’s aggrieved ego for whatever reason, a more sensible thing it can do is place a correction at the top of the said articles in the archives. Something like, “The Commission on Audit has verified that Nabcor’s advertising contracts with Melo del Prado were legitimate, and that payments to him were supported by the required documents.”
Compromise set in motion
Palabrica did not bother to even acknowledge receipt of Nolasco’s letter, much less rebut his strong objections to the compromise agreement and consult with the five respondents.
Despite the refusal of Nolasco, Engracia and Carvajal to sign the compromise agreement, the PDI management proceeded to publish a front-page apology to Del Prado last Friday, setting in motion the settlement of his libel suit.
As for the three dissentets, they were cast adrift by the PDI management and served notice that the company’s lawyers from Ortega, Bacorro, Ofulio, Calma & Carbonell law firm would no longer handle their defense.
The three respondents, who had together logged a total of nearly 100 years of service to the Inquirer, were told by the PDI management and the law firm to hire their own defense lawyers in the libel case.
Nolasco, as well as Engracia and Carvajal, remains undeterred.
“If this management decision would mean leaving me out in the cold without the services of the Inquirer’s legal counsel, I’d be greatly honored to fight this battle alone to the very end with my own lawyer,” Nolasco told Palabrica in his letter.
Although Del Prado was overjoyed by the front-page apology, it’s still not clear whether he will abandon his libel suit pending at the QC Regional Trial Court or pursue his case against Nolasco, Engracia and Carvajal.
A court hearing scheduled on Monday, Aug. 2, was canceled due to lockdown restrictions in Metro Manila amid a surge in Covid-19 cases. #