Late in 2014, GMA/dzBB broadcaster Melo del Prado filed a libel case against five Philippine Daily Inquirer journalists—myself as then managing editor, then news editor Artemio T. Engracia Jr., then associate editor Abel S. Ulanday, and then reporters Nancy C. Carvajal and Christine O. Avendaño.
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 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 of pesos in kickbacks by channeling their pork barrel funds into fictitious projects of fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
No less than the Supreme Court 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 and certain officials for plunder, malversation, bribery, and graft and corruption.
“Courageous and excellent work’
The pork barrel stories won for the Inquirer a slew of 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 her body of investigative reports as “a courageous and excellent work in exposing official corruption in a country where journalists face death and physical attack.”
Carvajal was also named Journalist of the Year by the Metrobank Foundation Inc. and Probe Media Foundation in that same year.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility likewise 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
The broadcaster 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 his 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 legitimate advertising of the Barangay Bagsakan project.
Proof of actual malice crucial
For Del Prado to win his lawsuit, however, it was not enough for him to disprove 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 hurdled 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, the accused journalists, including myself, would have romped to victory in a full-blown trial.
But here’s the unfortunate part. Instead of fighting the libel case in court, the Inquirer 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 Inquirer 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 Inquirer lawyer as defense counsel. Ulanday and Avendaño stood by the Inquirer management all the way.
Engracia, Carvajal and I strongly felt that the agreement demeans the Inquirer brand, discredits excellent journalism, and diminishes press freedom.
No justification or valid reason
As the three of us saw it, the overwhelming evidence at hand rendered the terms of the compromise agreement unwarranted, unreasonable and unprincipled.
First, there was no justification for a front-page apology to Del Prado, his family, GMA network and media colleagues, considering that he sorely lacked proof of actual malice. Per the 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 was no valid reason to pay damages to Del Prado given 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 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.”
To think that what the Inquirer management consigned to the garbage bin were news articles on graft and greed integral to the newspaper’s biggest scoop ever!
Final court hearing
Disregarding objections to the deal, the Inquirer 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 Inquirer 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 Inquirer 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 Avendaño, the Inquirer lawyer still balked at submitting an updated copy of the settlement to set the record straight.
Carvajal, in particular, expressed misgivings about the Inquirer 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 lacked only my signature, Judge Sze on Aug. 9 approved the Inquirer-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.
Thus did the judge stamp his seal on the Inquirer management’s unprecedented surrender in a major libel case, ending eight years of litigation and concluding a sad chapter in the history of the newspaper that carries the slogan “Balanced news, fearless views.”
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.
As for us three dissenting Inquirer journalists, we might not have gotten our wish for a full-blown trial on the merits of Del Prado’s libel case. But we’ve sent across our message: Fearless journalists who won’t be silenced are alive and well, and they will fight for what is true and right in defense of press freedom.
Jose Ma. D. Nolasco (0919 004 2729; [email protected]) is a retired executive editor of the Inquirer. —Ed.