June 20, 2024

In 2011, the libel case against the two top officials of the Baguio Midland Courier, to date the longest running community paper, has been dismissed.

The case filed in 2006, by a City Hall official who felt alluded to in the paper’s editorial took five years before the court issued a decision that concluded among others that the piece is not libelous on account that the article is not defamatory, is not malicious, and did not identify the official as the one mentioned in the editorial.

Citing the New York Times vs. Sullivan case, a Baguio court has acquitted then publisher and general manager, Dr. Charles M. Hamada and then editor-in-chief, Cecile C. Afable.

The New York Times vs. Sullivan case is a globally recognized landmark decision about safeguarding the freedom of speech and of the press.

Portions of the decision read, “In determining whether a statement is defamatory, the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by the persons reading them.”

The 2011 case was the latest libel case filed against the Midland Courier. The paper faced several cases years earlier, which it was all able to weather. In fact, some are already part of Philippine jurisprudence.

At the core of all these cases is the court’s recognition of the freedom of the press and free speech.

In the libel suit filed in 1988 by then civic leader-turned-politician, Ramon “Jun” Labo vs. Afable and then publisher and general manager Oseo Hamada, the former claimed he was maliciously labeled as someone who cannot be trusted with money.

At the time,  Labo, who has gained popularity for his involvement in civic groups, was a candidate for mayor of Baguio. In one of his speaking engagements, he declared he will donate a substantial amount to charity from his own pocket.

Afable,  in some of her columns, referred about someone who cannot be trusted as that person still owed the paper. According to Labo, he was the one being referred to and this phrase in Afable’s columns tarnished his reputation.

Labo filed a case against the top officials of the Midland and on June 14, 1990, a Baguio Regional Trial Court dismissed the case. But on Jan. 7, 1992, the Sixth Division of the Court of Appeals reversed the RTC decision and ordered Oseo Hamada and Afable to pay Labo for damages.

The CA decision was appealed to the Supreme Court and in 2004, the High Tribunal has affirmed the RTC’s decision.

THREE WITCHES AND THEIR ALLYBaguio Midland Courier Editor-in-Chief Cecile Afable (3rd from left) together with Leonora San Agustin (left) and Virginia De Guia (right), who were also known as the “Three Witches of Baguio”, are remembered for their legacy and unwavering love for Baguio and its people. The trio have been influencer for the betterment of Baguio through their opinions published in the Midland. With them was then Councilor Lilia Yaranon. — Art Tibaldo

Also citing the New York Times vs. Sullivan case, the SC said Afable’s articles were fair comments on a matter of public interest as it dealt with the character of Labo who was running for mayor at the time.

The New York Times case states that people should discuss the character and qualifications of candidates. “The importance to the state and to society of such discussions is so vast, and the advantages derived are so great, that they more than counterbalance the inconvenience of private persons whose conduct may be involved, and occasional injury to the reputations of individuals must yield to the public welfare, although at times such injury may be great. The public benefit from publicity is so great, and the chance of injury to private character so small, that such discussion must be privileged”.

The SC decision, now considered jurisprudence in libel cases states, “Considering that private respondent assured his would-be constituents that he would be donating millions of his own money, Afable’s column with respect to private respondent’s indebtedness provided the public with information as regards his financial status which, in all probability, was still unbeknownst to them at that time. Indeed, the information might have dissuaded some members of the electorate from voting in favor of private respondent but such is the inevitable result of the application of the law. The effect would have been adverse to the private respondent but public interest in this case far outweighs the interest of private respondent,” the SC said.

Midland Courier’s Opinion writers and Editorials

Notwithstanding the filing of cases, the Midland Courier’s opinion and editorial (Op-Ed) pages is still one of the most read sections of the paper.

Apart from the editorial section that contained the paper’s position over various issues in the community and even national and global issues, Midland Courier’s Op-Ed page not only features writers who are knowledgeable in the topics they discuss, they too, are respected members of the community.

Before the word “follower/s” became a repeated word in the social media sphere, Midland’s opinion writers have gained followers and even enemies because of their profound or provocative pieces.

The late lawyer Benedicto Carantes, who wrote the “Opposite Connection” was known for his witty, humorous, satirical, and sometimes romantic commentaries; known Martial Law critic and one of the pillars of the Free Legal Assistance Group Pablito Sanidad Sr. wrote “Overview” – a no-nonsense column that discussed local and national politics and other social issues; Guillermo Bandonill who writes the “Circumstantially Factual” dwelt on nuances of the law as well as political issues; Afable’s “In and Out of Baguio”, was a no frills piece about “juicy” events in the halls of government; “City on a Hill” by Fr. Andres Cosalan tackled faith, religious beliefs, traditions, and social issues on a spiritual and religious standpoint; Stella de Guia’s “Turo-Tour” was on lifestyle; philanthropist Dr. Charles Cheng’s “Between You and Me” tackled alternative and oriental medication; Bagnos Cudiamat, who later wrote for other papers, was the only one who wrote in Iloco; former Midland Courier senior reporter Jimmy Laking’s “Strike Home” dwelled on local political issues; activist and artist Baboo Mondonedo’s “Dateline Baguio” tackled food, tourism, and travel, Midland Courier cartoonist and former sports reporter Jogin Rey Tamayo’s “Off the Bench” was on sports and fitness; Midland Courier co-founder Sinai Hamada’s “Fore and Aft” and Bembo Afable’s “Rhyme and Reason” were also about local politics; Professor Morr Pungayan’s “Ethnos Ibaloi” focused on Ibaloy practices, traditions, customs, language; “The City Council and You” chronicles actions of the city council; one-third of Baguio’s “three witches”, Leonora San Agustin wrote about the arts; “Labor Frontier” by Ogie Aquillo and later by Patrick Rillorta tackled labor concerns; and Gaby Keith’s “G-String” was on prose and poetry.

Writing for Midland Courier was considered a prestige that some of these columnists have maintained a strong and consistent following and continued to write for the paper for decades. Their words were so powerful that at some point, even sparked street protests and the filing of cases against the powers that be, such as the protests against Jadewell parking, the anti-casino sentiment, the opposition to the BGH flyover, and of late, the SM expansion.

Some of Midland’s opinion writers have pursued other careers but have left an indelible mark not only in the paper but also among their avid readers.

Laking has relocated; Keith and Bandonill remain passionate about writing and have sustained writing for the paper; Tamayo remains Midland Courier’s resident cartoonist; Cosalan continues with his vocation in the Catholic Church; while the rest have gone to the great beyond.

New names have since been added in the roster of Op-Ed writers which include Fr. Marcs Castañeda, a respected religious authority in Mountain Province; Dr. Josefina Luspian, a kidney disease specialist, and former councilor Edgar Avila. Like their predecessors, they have lived up to the core values of the Midland Courier.

Ruffling feathers

Carantes is no stranger to be at the receiving end of people who may have been slighted by his satirical and even straightforward commentaries.

In some of his accounts which he wrote about in his columns, he would say that he too experienced getting confronted for his commentaries, or would write a letter to the editor bearing scathing remarks about him. But he also wrote that while he may have angered some, he also gained the respect of more people, even those whom he has criticized at some point.

Even as people with bruised egos and threats of bringing him to court, Carantes continued writing for the paper for over 30 years until his demise in September 2021.

His commentaries remain relevant to this day that the Midland Courier reprints select columns as tribute to his contribution in helping keep the community informed and courageous enough to question official policies.

Another issue that involved the Midland’s editorial staff member was when senior reporter and columnist Jimmy Laking was declared persona non grata by the Municipal Council of La Trinidad in 2010.

A resident of La Trinidad who was assigned to cover the “Benguet beat”, Laking wrote a series of commentaries about the plan to build a mall in town.

To the Midland Courier and the media in general, consider the declaration of persona non grata was more than an action against one person – it was an attack on the freedom of the press and an affront to the universally-recognized freedom of speech.  

Laking filed graft cases against the officials involved, and which resulted in the suspension of all members of the municipal council.

The case was later amicably settled but this, and other previous cases has proven time and again that the Op-Ed page as one of the venues to express an individual or the company’s stand, freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are paramount in a democratic nation.

This has been recognized in the series of awards the Midland Courier received in the annual civic journalism awards conferred by the Philippine Press Institute.

“For its fine editorial writing and clear stance on issues affecting the community at large; its variety of columnists representing different point of views to; its well-selected, thought-evoking quotes from local officials on issues of the day; its regular true-or-false feature that serves to intrigue readers; its fine layout and editorial cartoons; and for offering space for readers to contribute their writing. The Baguio Midland Courier offers provocative editorial/opinion pages that excite the mind and help readers form their own thoughts,” a citation for the Midland Courier, states in one of the many awards it has received throughout its 77 years of existence.

Sharing space to budding writers, readers

The Midland Courier recognizes that we do not have the monopoly of opinion or the staff writers alone can write, hence our decision to open the Op-Ed page to young and upcoming writers through the “Animated Me”, “Speaking Out”, and “Commentary” sections.

Regular contributors include retired Judge Del Claravall, Ivan Layugan, Sam Palaci Aquino, Jayrerose Guevarra, and Jenelyn Agayo, among the hundreds who have submitted their essays. 

The  “Week’s Mail”, which accommodates letters to the editor, has also become an effective platform to react to certain issues or to call out authorities about matters of public concern.

Regulars were Juniper Dominguez who often called out the Department of Public Works and Highways about alleged irregularities committed in the implementation of infrastructure projects, Recolectica Agamata who often talked about spirituality, and Percival Alipit who discussed government policies on agriculture.

On the other hand, those who took time to respond to citizens’ concerns or the critique of our opinion writers were then mayors Bernardo Vergara, Mauricio Domogan, former councilor and Department of Transportation-Cordillera Director Federico Mandapat Jr., former executive assistant at City Hall, Josefino Balatero, La Trinidad Mayor Romeo Salda, former National Economic Development Authority-Cordillera Director Milagros Rimando, DPWH, the business and tourism sector, and others who felt the need to respond in a public platform through the Midland Courier

The “True or False” section also generates the most reactions based on the queries the Editorial Board receives about the intriguing posts contributed by our readers and which the Editorial team carefully composes in a way that it makes the readers guess whom the item is alluding to and participate by ticking the true or false boxes.

A bonus section which is only printed as the Midland Courier closes its edition for the calendar year is the “Yearend Nomination” within which satirical or well-deserved “nominations” are assigned to persons, events, places, that were often in the news for the past year.

To those who get positive nominations such as business establishments or individuals, being included in the “Yearend Nominations” is a privilege.

Individuals, including aspirants for public office even include their nomination in their resume, while establishments even have it framed and post it in their stores.

Dr. Xenia Emperador-Garnace, international faculty member of the College of Local Administration of Khon Kaen University, Thailand and former professor at the University of Baguio School of Teacher Education and Liberal Arts, said having an Op-Ed section is not merely having people to write.

“Since the purpose of the Op-Ed section is to hone public opinion, it takes superior persuasive writing skills to be an effective Op-Ed writer. Most of the time, what makes the Op-Ed section highly engaging is when writers examine the other side’s logic, refute popular belief, or when they look through the individual lenses of unpopular opinions. The writers do not necessarily need to showcase their verbal or linguistic acrobatics, since the writing style should be understood by the common masses. Take note, you need to make a complicated issue understandable for all sorts of readers,” Garnace said.

In the case of the seasoned opinion writers of Baguio Midland Courier, Garnace said their opinion pieces have always been an extension of their identities. The publication of the articles that these professionals write on a regular basis has been their ways of sharing their knowledge and expertise to the people of Baguio. As a result, readers would most likely be persuaded by what they write about.

For students, budding journalists, and writing enthusiasts, Garnace said contributing their opinion articles helps them practice and showcase their writing skills. “The Op-Ed section has been an avenue for them to share their thoughts and viewpoints about societal issues. Undeniably, the glory of the byline is also one thing that they want to experience at least once in their life. Eventually, these would also encourage others to write about their thoughts about various issues in the locality”.

We remain Fair, Fearless, Friendly, and Free

Many people have become part of the Midland Courier – whether as a staff member or a contributor.

The editorial team, now led by the tandem of Editor-in-Chief Harley Palangchao and Assistant Editor Jane Cadalig, continues to the live up to the Midland Courier’s tenets of good journalism by being fair, fearless, friendly, and free.

Amidst the changing landscape in the delivery of news, the Midland Courier is steadfast in being the gatekeepers in news delivery keeping in mind that we are responsible in not only keeping our audience informed, but also informed accurately.

Garnace said a news organization that is able to present news at the same time provide an avenue for varied opinions through its Op-Ed page helps promote a free flow of ideas. “The presence of an Op-Ed section is vital in highlighting the unpopular views of the people, or calling out the malpractices of the subjects of blind items whoever they may be. Either way, it is considered as a healthy practice of democracy and freedom of speech and of expression. Nonetheless, gatekeepers should guarantee that the news organizations do not go beyond their boundaries, and that they do not publish something which is purely baseless and libelous in nature. As long as they have evidence to support their claims and that what they write about concerns the public, they should remain fearless. After all, it is part of the game of being a media practitioner. Earning wrath from certain personalities may indirectly manifest guilt and defensiveness on their part. As a precautionary measure, the editorial board should anticipate ways on how to protect itself and its staff if worse comes to worst,” Garnace said.