At the same time, the high court found a prosecution lawyer in the case guilty of indirect contempt for distributing copies of the complaint, which it said was supposed to be confidential, against Philip Sigfrid Fortun to the media.
In a 16-page decision, the court ordered private prosecutor Prima Quinsayas to pay P20,000 in connection with the filing of the disbarment case on November 22, 2010.
“As a lawyer and an officer of the Court, Atty. Quinsayas is familiar with the confidential nature of disbarment proceedings. However, instead of preserving its confidentiality, Atty. Quinsayas disseminated copies of the disbarment complaint against petitioner to members of the media which act constitutes contempt of court,” the Supreme Court said.
Fortun is a legal counsel for members of the Ampatuan family who are implicated in the massacre of 58 people, including over 30 journalists, in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.
Quinsayas has yet to comment on the ruling, saying she has yet to receive a copy of it.
“I’ll have to read the SC decision first before I can make a sensible response,” she told GMA News Online.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that as a complainant and a lawyer, Quindayas was bound by Section 18, Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court, which maintains the confidentiality of a disbarment case until its resolution.
The high court said indirect contempt against a Regional Trial Court or a court of equivalent or higher rank is punishable by a fine not exceeding P30,000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both.
Meanwhile, among those cleared by the court were GMA News Online reporter Sophia Dedace, Philippine Star’s Edu Punay, and Inquirer.net’s Tetch Torres-Tupas.
“The Maguindanao Massacre is a very high-profile case. Of the 57 victims of the massacre, 30 were journalists. It is understandable that any matter related to the Maguindanao Massacre is considered a matter of public interest and that the personalities involved, including petitioner, are considered as public figure,” the Supreme Court said.
“Since the disbarment complaint is a matter of public interest, legitimate media had a right to publish such fact under freedom of the press. The Court also recognizes that respondent media groups and personalities merely acted on a news lead they received when they reported the filing of the disbarment complaint,” it added.
The court also said that the distribution of the disbarment complaint, “by itself, is not sufficient to absolve the media from responsibility for violating the confidentiality rule.”
“However, since petitioner is a public figure or has become a public figure because he is representing a matter of public concern, and because the event itself that led to the filing of the disbarment case against petitioner is a matter of public concern, the media has the right to report the filing of the disbarment case as legitimate news,” the Supreme Court said. — KBK, GMA News