By Jane Abao
Manila, Philippines (3/16//2015) – This court acquittal marks another victory for MCGI on the lot of libel cases filed by the Iglesia ni Cristo against the former’s ministers. A topic on “Eternal Life” led two panelists of the Ang Dating Daan TV program discussing news items mentioning Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) members as killers. Eternal life would not accommodate such people, they concluded.
Joselito Mallari and Wilfredo Santiago were commenting on three news items published in three local newspapers in their TV program. As a result the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) represented by Bienvenido C. Santiago filed charges against them on March 31, 2004 for the crime of libel. The court, however, acquitted these Ang Dating Daan TV panelists recently.
In a 13-page decision penned by Presiding Judge Manuel B. Sta. Cruz, Jr. of the Regional Trial Court, NCJR, Branch 226 for Criminal Case No. QO4-126059, Joselito “Josel” Mallari and Wilfredo “Willy” Santiago are acquitted of the crime of Libel for failure of the prosecution to prove all the elements of the crime charged, thus failing to establish the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
To be able to successfully prosecute the crime of Libel, the court said the complainant must prove the existence of the following elements:
- The allegation of a discreditable act or condition concerning another;
- Publication of the charge;
- Identity of the person defamed; and
- Existence of malice.
In part, the court said –
The alleged libelous remarks were made by the accused as panelists in the TV program “Ang Dating Daan.” This court notes the remarks were made in the context of explaining the teachings of their religion on the popular topic of “eternal life.” Although it may be argued that some of the members of the Iglesia ni Cristo were offended by the remarks, especially when the news clippings of the murders allegedly committed by individual members of the INC members were shown on the screen, this court rules that this alone does not make the remarks of the accused actionable by itself.
The court further said –
As with all other members of the various religious faith, an individual member of the INC has a reputation that is personal, separate and distinct in the community and it is highly unlikely that one’s personal reputation will be affected by what is seen and heard or published about the other INC members. It is also improbable that the INC community’s reputation, as a whole, will be blemished by these isolated acts imputed to some of its members…
The judgment quoted the Supreme Court stressing in MVRS Publications, Inc. vs. Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines that “words which are merely insulting are not actionable as libel or slander per se, and mere words of general abuse, however opprobrious, ill-natured, or vexatious, whether written or spoken, do not constitute a basis for an action for defamation in the absence of an allegation for special damages.”
Ang Dating Daan (The Old Path) is the longest running religious program in the country hosted by Bro. Eli Soriano, the Presiding Minister to the Members Church of God, International (MCGI). It has won several local and international awards. At the time of the filing of the case, ADD and the Iglesia ni Cristo were having a running debate centered on their teachings wherein each side tries to defend their teachings. The remarks being contested in this case were allegedly made by the accused on or about April 22, 2003 during the program of Ang Dating Daan at SBN21.
The court said the news items the panelists discussed were: a) People’s Journal, “INC minister shoots farmer dead,” dated July 24, 1996; b) People’s Tonight, “3 Iglesia-Vigilantes nabbed for beheading, roasting 2 men,” and c) Abante, “Ministro Namaril.”
The remarks include, as translated in English, “Do you know of churches that kill? Do they have eternal life?”
“Aha, you see that? He already killed him yet roasted him! Ministro Namaril (Minister Killed Someone). Whatever church that is, those inflicted with that kind of malady, cannot be granted with eternal life. As long as you are a murderer …. my countrymen, do not believe that a murderer is of God and has eternal life.”
The complaint accused these panelists of “intending to convey malicious and offensive insinuations and imputations that are destructive and tends to destroy the name and reputation of the Iglesia ni Cristo with no good justifiable motive but solely for the purposes of maligning, besmirching the name, honor, character and reputation of said offended party and to expose them as in fact they were exposed to public hatred and ridicule to their damage and prejudice.”
MCGI Minister Mallari, one of the accused, is now based outside the country. Defense witness Emilio T. Magdaraog then issued a judicial affidavit. He said the purpose of airing Ang Dating Daan and its related programs like Itanong mo kay Soriano (Ask Soriano, the Bible will Answer) is to spread the word of God according to what is written in the Bible and to have people lead a new life. As translated, he added, “This includes exposing and castigating religions that do evil but introduce themselves as they alone are of God and it is they alone that will be saved.”
Magdaraog is also a Minister for MCGI. Speaking for Mallari, he said in his judicial affidavit that Mallari was speaking in general terms. He was referring to “any religion that agrees and gives consent to killing their members but declares to the public that they alone are the ones who are of God and they alone are the only ones to be saved.” Speaking still in the vernacular, Magdaraog said, “It is clear that the Bible teaches that there is no salvation for killers or murderers. As ministers we are taught to speak the truth, no matter if some will be happy or angry at us.”
This is not the first time libel cases were filed by Bienvenido Santiago as private complainant or representative of the Iglesia ni Cristo against panelists of Ang Dating Daan TV. Fortunately, the courts have acquitted the accused in several libel cases in the years ahead for lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, Wilfredo Santiago, who was Bro. Eli’s Bible Reader, was separated from MCGI in 2009 (five years after the filing of this case) after a frustrated ambition to become minister. Willy had put up his own church group trying to mimic doctrines he learned while at MCGI and infusing them with his own understanding. Failing to muster even a hundred members, he still called his group “worldwide” in an effort to mimic MCGI and be another “Bro. Eli.” Unfortunately for him, those he had taken away have been sending feelers for wanting to return to MCGI.
In this Libel case, filed in 2004 and finally judged this February 15, 2015, Willy was represented by a Public Affairs Office (PAO) lawyer. His co-accused, Mallari, had another counsel representing him.