By JOSE MA. D. NOLASCO
(Editor’s note: The following opinion piece by retired Inquirer executive editor Jose Ma. D. Nolasco is a cautionary tale about how a newspaper management gave in to a compromise settlement of a questionable libel case instead of staying the course of balanced news and fearless views.)
In late 2014, GMA/dzBB broadcaster Melo del Prado filed a libel case against five Inquirer journalists — myself as managing editor then, news editor Artemio T. Engracia Jr., associate editor Abel S. Ulanday, and reporters Nancy C. Carvajal and Christine O. Avendano.
In his lawsuit, Del Prado tagged three “libelous” Inquirer stories that he claimed had damaged his reputation: “Pork payoffs to newscasters Erwin Tulfo, Del Prado, others bared: 2 broadcasters got check from Nabcor” (March 19, 2014); “De Lima: Media payoffs to be probed” (March 20, 2014); and “Media men in payoff may face bribe raps. No special treatment for broadcasters tied to pork scam — Palace” (March 21, 2014).
The three stories were a significant part of the Inquirer investigative report on how Janet Lim-Napoles conspired with officials of state agencies and hundreds of lawmakers in pocketing billions in kickbacks by channelling their pork barrel funds into fictitious projects of fake NGOs.
The Supreme Court no less acknowledged the Inquirer’s outstanding series that prompted a wide-ranging probe by the National Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Ombudsman, and Commission on Audit. Their findings led to the trial and conviction of Napoles, lawmakers, and high officials for plunder, malversation, bribery, and graft and corruption.
Prestigious awards, citations
The pork barrel stories won for the Inquirer a slew of prestigious journalism awards and citations.
A year after Del Prado sued, Carvajal was named Journalist of the Year during the 2015 Awards for Editorial Excellence of the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA), considered the most prestigious journalism award in the Asia-Pacific region.
The SOPA judges cited Carvajal’s body of investigative reports as “a courageous and excellent work in exposing official corruption in a country where journalists face death and physical attack.”
That same year, Carvajal was also named Journalist of the Year by the Metrobank Foundation Inc. and Probe Media Foundation.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility likewise heaped praise on Carvajal when it named her Most Outstanding Journalist of 2013 “for providing information the citizenry needs to hold government officials and other individuals accountable through her investigative series on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).”
Del Prado’s complaint
For his part, Del Prado found himself drawn into the PDAF maelstrom when the Inquirer reported alleged payoffs to media personalities, which the state-run National Agribusiness Corp. (Nabcor) had supposedly sourced from the pork funds of legislators.
The Inquirer duly reported Del Prado’s side in the Aug. 26, 2014 story, “Radio anchor sues Inquirer for libel over ‘pork’ stories.”
“There was no mention whatsoever of my receiving payoffs in the guise of advertising, nor that I was a beneficiary of the illegally disbursed (PDAF) in both affidavits submitted by the two Nabcor officials to the Office of the Ombudsman,” the story quoted Del Prado as saying in his libel complaint.
In the same story, Del Prado’s lawyer said the P245,535 that Nabcor had paid the broadcaster in three checks was for legit advertising of the Barangay Bagsakan project.
Proof of actual malice crucial
For Del Prado to win his lawsuit, however, it’s not enough that he disproves the allegations of corruption against him.
The Supreme Court has ruled in many cases that a public figure, like the broadcaster, must present incontrovertible evidence of actual malice on the part of the accused.
In other words, Del Prado must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Inquirer journalists knew their stories were false or they recklessly disregarded the truth in publishing them.
Unless Del Prado hurdles this insurmountable test for libel, all the evidence that he has presented in court to prop up his lawsuit would be for nothing.
As the Supreme Court made clear in Guingguing vs Court of Appeals, the press should not be held to account for honest mistakes. “There must be some room for misstatement of fact and misjudgment . . . Mere error, inaccuracy or even falsity alone does not prove actual malice.”
Del Prado would also have been hard put to prove malice as the Inquirer adhered to stringent guidelines on verification. Most importantly, the newspaper accorded him fair treatment and equal play by consistently airing his side, promptly clarifying misstatements by officials and correcting factual errors.
‘We don’t have evidence’
In view of the Supreme Court rulings on libel, the prestigious awards showered on Carvajal and a critique of the Inquirer stories, I and the other accused Inquirer journalists would have romped to victory in a full-blown trial.
And now comes the exciting part. Instead of fighting the libel case out in court, the PDI management heeded its law firm’s advice to strike a deal with Del Prado.
“We do not have evidence to support our defense,” Raul Palabrica, the PDI board chair, declared. He then directed us five accused to sign the compromise agreement, threatening to leave us in the lurch if we did not.
I refused to sign and hired my own defense lawyer. Carvajal and Engracia withdrew their signatures from the document but retained the PDI lawyer as defense counsel. Only Ulanday and Avendano stood by the PDI management all the way.
Engracia, Carvajal and I strongly felt the deal demeans the Inquirer brand, discredits excellent journalism and diminishes press freedom.
No justification, no valid reason
As the three of us saw it, the overwhelming evidence at hand renders the terms of the compromise unwarranted, unreasonable and unprincipled.
First, there is no justification for a front-page apology to Del Prado, his family, GMA network and media colleagues, considering he sorely lacked proof of actual malice. As per Inquirer’s longstanding practice, a front-page apology is warranted only if there is a gross lapse of judgment on the part of the editorial staff.
Second, there is no valid reason to pay damages to Del Prado as per the high court ruling in Villanueva vs Philippine Daily Inquirer: “Damages could not simply arise from an inaccurate or false statement without irrefutable proof of actual malice as element of the assailed publication.”
Third, as steward of the Inquirer brand, the PDI management shirked its responsibility of preserving the integrity of the Inquirer archives by purging from its record 10 news articles, including “Timeline — Pork Barrel Scam, An Inquirer Special Report,” and “Timeline: Napoles and the Pork Barrel Scam.”
And to think what the PDI management consigned to the garbage bin were news articles on graft and greed integral to the Inquirer’s biggest scoop of this century!
Final court hearing
Disregarding objections to the deal, the PDI lawyer went ahead and notified the Quezon City Regional Trial Court on June 29 that the newspaper management had fully complied with Del Prado’s three demands.
In the same hearing, Del Prado’s lawyer informed Judge Louie Brian R. Sze of QC RTC Branch 87 that the broadcaster had issued an affidavit of desistance dropping his libel complaint against all the accused.
What the PDI lawyer presented in court, however, was a copy of the compromise agreement that showed a majority of the accused had endorsed the deal.
Accurate but not true. Four of the five accused affixed their signatures to the document in February 2021. Withheld from the court was the fact that a month later Engracia and Carvajal told the PDI board chair in writing they were withdrawing their signatures and opposing the compromise.
Left with a deal with just the minority support of Ulanday and Avendano, the PDI lawyer still balked at submitting an updated copy of the settlement to set the record straight.
Carvajal, in particular, expressed misgivings about the PDI lawyer’s misrepresentation.
“As our defense lawyer, isn’t he ethically and morally bound to represent us in court — and not the interest of the PDI management which is not even a respondent in the case?” the retired Inquirer reporter asked.
“He should have told the court and put it on record that Mr. Engracia and I had also rejected the compromise,” she added.
On the basis of the court record that the document only lacked my signature, Judge Sze on Aug. 9 approved the PDI-Del Prado compromise and granted the joint motion of the two sides for the permanent dismissal of the case. The public prosecutor interposed no objection to the termination of eight years of litigation.
With the court seal stamped on the PDI management’s surrender to a questionable libel case, a sad chapter in the Inquirer’s history came to a close.
In a sequel to the closure of the case, I filed on Aug. 10 a manifestation expounding on legal arguments against the broadcaster’s lawsuit. It was my intent that the document I entered into the court record for posterity would be the last word on the controversy.
Engracia, Carvajal and I might not have gotten our wish for a full-blown trial and ruling on the merits. But we’ve sent across our message: Fearless journalists who won’t be silenced are alive and well. They will fight for what’s true and right in defense of press freedom.