An annoyed Olympus God threw a bolt of blinding lightning and a ball of rumbling thunder across the valley of miscreant lowlifes to instill fear on one misguided and insolent soul who dare challenge the integrity of these “cloud-dwelling” deities. This is the closest metaphor I can think of the One Million Peso libel complaint filed by SC Justice Presbitero Velasco, Jr. against journalist Marites Vitug, the author of the book “Shadow of Doubt”, which was released recently.
The libel suit is based on Ms. Vitug’s online column entitled, “SC Justice In Partisan Politics” which appeared at ABS-CBNNEWS.com on March 12, 2010. The same accusation, it is reported, had been republished much in detail in her book.
Ms. Vitug had accused Justice Velasco in her online column:
“The case of Marinduque bears close watching as Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. navigates an ethical minefield. His son, Lord Allan Velasco, is running for the province’s lone seat in Congress, against Edmundo Reyes Jr., scion of a political family. Allan, who is currently the provincial administrator, is the second in the Velasco family to enter politics. (Before he joined the judiciary, the elder Velasco ran for board member in Cavite and lost.) He is up against the Reyeses who have ruled Marinduque for about three decades.
Justice Velasco is shaping up to be a key figure in his son’s uphill battle—but he denies this.
Accounts from residents in Marinduque show that the Supreme Court justice is active in organizing Allan’s ticket. He has invited at least two local officials to run with his son as councilor and promised to underwrite campaign expenses; he is also present in Allan’s meetings with local leaders in his beachfront residence in Torrijos, Marinduque.
The enraged jurist is not only interested in the vindication of his honor which he believed had been soiled by the article, but of Ms. Vitug’s incarceration as well by filing his case at the Manila Prosecutor’s Office which by structural topography, is a place where these Deities also hold tremendous persuasion and appeal. He could not let go of Ms. Vitug’s impudence of ascribing his breach of the judicial ethics that he had to embark on a legal battle he could not morally win against the embattled woman journalist.
It is a classic case of the strong being pitted against the weak. And where the mighty invokes the majesty of the law, justice and truth are the first casualties and press freedom, in the case at bar, becomes a One Million Peso commodity. Media practitioners could only feel its “chilling effect”.
If the jurist pursued his case to its conclusion and is able to secure the result he wanted, such result is tainted with the public perception that he arm-twisted everyone to secure the verdict. If he wanted to be perceived as fair and his conduct beyond reproached, he must at least try to level the playing field by resigning his office and sue Ms. Vitug as an ordinary citizen. But is he willing to trade his honoured position and become ordinary mortal himself just to secure a pittance of One Million Pesos and put his alleged tormentor behind bars? I don’t think so.
The suit is at best an opening for Ms. Vitug to offer some repentance or apology but the release of her book timed at the filing of the complaint against her is a clear indication that she had already crossed the Rubicon.
Analyzed from an ideal situation, the libel case is crippled. Justice Velasco’s alleged politicking is of paramount public interest and therefore is not off-limit to public scrutiny. To prove his case, he must present the conjunctive elements of damage and malice. Malice in Times v. Sullivan is not ill-will but reckless disregard for the truth.
Ms. Vitug reported that accounts of Marinduque residents point to Justice Velasco’s being active in preparing the ticket for his son Allan. In the same article she wrote that the magistrate denied the accusation. This only shows that the journalist took efforts in interviewing Marinduque residents about the issue and had asked Justice Velasco about his reactions on this reported politicking. It was a balanced account of the incident, though the public would tend to believe more the residents than the jurist himself.
As a SC Justice, Mr. Velasco should have at least read the genius of his predecessors in the bench that gave us the principle that public officials must not be too onion-skinned as to find disrespect in an article about their indecorous behaviour while serving the public.
But oh, well, Justice Velasco, while a Court Administrator tried to defend his chief, Hilario Davide in 2003 against the imputation of judicial fund diversion by offering members of Congress the quintessential “quid pro quo”.
“I would also like to voice out the position that there may be a possibility , Your Honor, that in the future, some employees of the House of Representatives may question the disbursement and expenditures of the House and the case may be filed with the courts, and under our judicial power, we have the right to determine whether a particular branch of government has abused its discretion and which can be tantamount to lack or excess of jurisdiction, So we just want to point out that the situation, Your Honor, so that the Committee may be made aware of possible suit in the future also and the Supreme Court, of course, has the judicial power under the Constitution”.