SC allows columnist to pursue counterclaim vs Enrile in libel case

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled to allow the counterclaim of newspaper columnist Yolanda Ong against former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, demanding P88 million in damages for harassment and violation of the right to free speech.

The counterclaim was blocked by the Court of Appeals (CA) on technicalities, which is now overturned by the SC First Division and allows Ong to pursue the case against Enrile.

Associate Justice Noel Tijam penned the decision that was promulgated on November 22, 2017, but released to the media only on Tuesday, January 24.

"The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for press freedom. We intend to pursue our counterclaims against JPE to the fullest extent possible," said human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, Ong's lawyer.

Counterclaim

In 2012, Enrile filed a P31 million libel suit against Ong over the column ‘Like Father, Like Son’ published in The Philippine Star. The column was published around the time that Enrile’s son Jack was running for the Senate, and resurrected issues hounding Enrile's role during Martial Law under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Turning the tables on him, Ong filed a counterclaim demanding P88 million in damages, saying that Enrile’s libel suit caused her moral and exemplary damages and violated her freedom of speech. She also demanded another P1 million in attorneys' fees.

"It is meant to intimidate and silence defendant Ong and other journalists, and to place a chilling effect on their ability to write about plaintiff’s public conduct on matters of public concern," Ong said in her counterclaim.

Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 118 dismissed her counterclaim in 2013, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals (CA) in 2014.

Incidentally, the Pasay RTC has already dismissed Enrile’s original libel suit against Ong, according to Diokno. Enrile is questioning the dismissal, which is pending now before the CA.

Ong said then that should she win the case, she would donate the money to the victims of martial law.

Compulsory vs permissive

The RTC decision, which was upheld by the CA, ruled that Ong’s counterclaim is a permissive counterclaim.

A compulsory counterclaim arises from the same issue, while a permissive counterclaim is unrelated to the issue.

But the main difference is, according to Diokno: “If it’s a compulsory counterclaim we would not pay docket fees. If it’s a permissive counterclaim, we have to pay the docket fees.”

Ong would have had to pay a rough estimate of P1.7 million to pursue a permissive counterclaim. But she didn’t and took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing it’s a compulsory counterclaim.

Justice Tijam’s decision agrees with her, with concurrences from Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo De Castro, Mariano Del Castillo and Francis Jardeleza.

“We find that petitioner’s claims are compulsory, and hence should be resolved along with the civil complaint filed by respondent, without the necessity of complying with the requirements for initiatory pleadings,” SC said in a 9-page decision. 

Diokno said: "Journalists who believe that they are being sued for libel to silence them or cow them into submission may file counterclaims for violating their freedom of expression without having to pay filing fees that could reach millions of pesos." Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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