The Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of televangelist and Ang Dating Daan head Eliseo “Brother Eli” Soriano in a libel case arising from his remarks against a fellow preacher in his radio program 20 years ago.
In a seven-page decision penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam, the SC’s First Division sustained the May 2016 decision of the Court of Appeals that affirmed his conviction by Iriga City Regional Trial Court in the libel case filed by televangelist and Jesus Miracle Crusade International Ministry head Wilde Almeda.
This emerged after the SC dismissed for lack of merit Soriano’s petition seeking reversal of the rulings of the CA and RTC.
The tribunal sided with the findings of the lower courts that the elements of libel—identification, publication, defamatory imputation, and malice—under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code were all present when Soriano attacked Almeda in his program over dzAL in Iriga City, Camarines Sur on July 31, 1998.
In the said taped broadcast, Soriano slammed Almeda after the latter gave his blessing to then-presidential candidate Jose de Venecia.
He called the JMCIM preacher “false prophet,” “idiot” and “apostle of demons.”
The high court turned down Soriano’s argument that he could not be held criminally liable for his statements that were supposedly protected by religious freedom under the Constitution.
“Petitioner’s claim that his statements are absolutely protected by the Constitution because they are expressions of
eligious beliefs do not merit any consideration. As what this Court stated [in Soriano vs Laguardia et al], “Plain and simple insults directed at another person cannot be elevated to the status of religious speech. Even petitioner’s attempt to place his words in context show that he was moved by anger and the need to seek retribution, not by any religious conviction,” the SC ruled.
“Though religion is arguably a matter or subject of public interest, there is no standard by which we can declare petitioner’s statements as fair commentaries. On their own, the words used by petitioner do not appear to debunk the purported falsities in the preachings of JMCIM but actually to degrade and insult their pastor or founder, Almeda,” the SC said.
However, while the tribunal affirmed the conviction of Soriano in Almeda’s case, it junked the other libel case pertaining to his statements against “persons comprising” JMCIM in the same radio show.
The SC reversed the CA ruling and instead acquitted Soriano in the second count of libel, saying his statements were not addressed to any specific pastor or individual in the rival church.
“Contrary to the findings of the lower courts, We did not find anything in the records which establish or single out any specific pastor, specifically Joel Cortero. Neither can We consider petitioner’s statements, be sweeping enough as to injure the reputation of all the members of JMCIM,” the tribunal stressed.
With these, the SC then modified the decisions of the CA and RTC that imposed a P12,000 fine on Soriano.
Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin and Associate Justices Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Alexander Gesmundo concurred in this ruling.
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