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Publisher and editor of Tribune gets jail term

By Ben Gines, Jr.

Publisher and editor-in-chief of the Daily Tribune Ninez Cacho-Olivares was yesterday found guilty on one count of libel out of 48 libel suits filed by F. Arthur Villaraza by Judge Winlove Dumayas of the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 59.

Despite the Supreme Court’s Administrative Circular No-08-2008 entitled Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of penalties in Libel Cases, which imposes a fine of P6,000 instead of a jail term, Dumayas sentenced Olivares from six months to two years in prison with damages amounting to more than P5 million, P4,000 in fines, P5 million for moral damages and P33,732 for actual damages to be paid to “The Firm” — Carpio Villaraza and Cruz (CVC) (now known as Villaraza, Cruz, Marcelo and Angcangco law firm).

The ruling handed down by the judge stemmed from an article written by Olivares in 2003 alleging that then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo chose people “connected” to the law firm to handle a complaint by its client Asia ’s Emerging Dragons Corp. (AEDC) against the winning bidder in the build-operate contract for the NAIA Terminal 3 and former secretaries of the Department of transportation and communications.

Olivares said she will exhaust all legal avenues and her lawyers will be filing a motion for reconderation, which she predicts will be denied, after which her next step would be to file an appeal before the Court of Appeals if the MR will be denied.

In the matter of bail, the Firm’s lawyers argued vehemently against a bail grant for Olivares even when the conviction is not final and executory.The judge stated in open court that the earlier bail stays and a higher bail imposed while the case is on appeal. No amount of bail was mentioned, however, and no bail hearing was set.

This is probably the first time that a journalist of note has been sentenced to a jail term plus a fine plus P5 million in damages from a court. Asked to comment, Olivares said: “I was obviously again being made an example to again send the strong message to media that this is what awaits media if they keep on being critical in relation to influential and powerful people in and out of this government.”

It will be recalled that after emergency rule was proclaimed by President Arroyo and the Tribune offices were raided by government authorities, then chief of staff Michael Defensor was quoted as saying that the raid would set the example for what happens to MalacaƱang critics.

Olivares said she expected the conviction ruling but was stunned by the jail sentence, the hefty fine, plus the moral damages of P5 million imposed by the court. Dumayas’ ruling stated that “judgment is hereby rendered ordering the accused to pay the private complainants the amount of” P33,732.25 as actual damage, plus interest and P5 million for moral damages, “considering the latter’s professional standing in society, they being highly reputed lawyers in the Philippines.”

There were tell-tale signs that the Firm knew beforehand that the judge would convict Olivares.The media were tipped off by the lawyers in the firm on the promulgation of Olivares. The media were also invited a day before by the Firm to a press conference, where lawyers announced that they would be donating the P5 million to the Philippine Press Institute for journalists who face suits to help them financially because the firm “believes in press freedom.”

Olivares, who was suffering from colds and coughing was defiant ,saying that she was not given an impartial decision and would appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

She noted that which she had written about the Firm was what many of the journalists had written, but only she was singled out for libel.

She also noted that all other cases filed by the firm has been put on hold, following Olivares’ petition to have all 48 libel cases consolidated. But the Dumayas court heard the case anyway.

Alex Medina, of Pecabar Law office, who represented Olivares, stated in his brief that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the article contained a defamatory imputation against private complainant F. Arthur Villaraza; failed to prove malice, among other unproven charges, along with the failure to prove that accused Olivares is liable for damages to complainant Villaraza.

In the subject article, Olivares called lawyer F. Arthur Villaraza, a managing partner of CVC, as the “president’s personal lawyer”, while insinuating that the law firm has a hold in the Arroyo administration’ s legal arena and has pervasive power and influence over the judiciary and other government offices.

Olivares also claimed that then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo, also a former senior partner of CVC, had planned to turn over the case of a losing bidder for the Naia Terminal 3 project to the Deputy Ombudsman of Luzon as he had connections with the Firm.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines , in a statement said it views with concern the conviction of Olivares on libel charges filed by the Villaraza Cruz Marcelo & Angcanco Law Firm.

“Even as the NUJP reserves its comment on the merits of the case, we want to point out that the case once again highlights the urgency of decriminalizing and improving our antiquated libel law.

“Two points give us cause to worry: First, the jail sentence imposed by Judge Dumayas apparently goes against the grain of the Supreme Court’s earlier suggestion for judges to prefer fines over prison terms for libel.

Second, the plan of the Villaraza Cruz Marcelo & Angcanco law firm to pursue 49 more libel charges against Olivares smacks of vindictiveness that, unfortunately, the antiquated libel law allows.

“We call on Congress to match its declarations of respect for press freedom and freedom of expression with action by working on the speedy passage of pending bills decriminalizing libel.

For its part, MalacaƱang, through Press Secretary and presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye, who is also close to the Firm’s partners, and even reveled at the reports that the Firm was filing a string of libel cases, reminded Olivares that the power of the pen is not absolute and stressed that Villaraza whose law firm the Villaraza Cruz Marcelo & Angcanco Law Firm had already severed ties with President Arroyo, as her legal counsel.

At that time, Villaraza and the law firm were still acting as the President’s personal lawyers.

“Just to set the facts straight, the President has not consulted ‘the Firm’ for many years. Villaraza is no longer a lawyer (of the President). That said, we hold press freedom as one of our core values. However, press freedom like all other rights is not absolute,” he said.

“The power of the pen must be wielded with responsibility. It must never be used to destroy reputations especially when private individuals are involved,” he added.

Deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez Jr. echoed the same, saying it is mere gossip that First Gentleman Jose Miguel Mike Arroyo, in behalf of the Firm, had purportedly “flexed” his muscle to pressure Dumayas into rendering a guilty verdict and stiff penalties.

With Sherwin C. Olaes and Tribune wires