Libel and the freedom of the press

Why this of all issues to discuss here in Phoenix Eyrie, you ask? There’s so many more that demand comment, like the upcoming stance the Supreme Court will be taking with regard to extra-judicial killings, the deathwatch on the LP and my thesis that the Republic will soon face its last “wake-up call”, albeit this time without any Guardians because all of those sworn to defend the Philippines have either gone abroad, gone corporate, or gone call center. Or gotten so horribly disillusioned that slitting one’s throat might be a much better option.

Perhaps because the above are… far too “tactile” for me right now. “Tactile” as in dama; they are issues far too close to my Soul that my BP goes up at the slightest thought in that direction. Well, except for the extra-judicial killing part. I’ve always said that people who take up arms against the State lost the right to complain about rights and the protection of any law the minute they made that choice to rebel. Besides, why is no one taking the NPA to task for its massacres and salvage operations?

Anyway.

Let me state it now that I find it galling for Media to complain about libel laws, and that its somehow rather obscene for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading newspaper, to call that as “antiquated.” What, has the Philippine Press, of all those in the world, suddenly found its sense of responsibility and maturity that no safeguards are necessary to curb their excess?

I remember the thoughts and feelings I brought to Gummersbach more than four years ago when I met journalists and other media practitioners from other parts of the globe. Nearly all of them were complaining at the lack of freedom for their country’s respective press. I, on the other hand, came there telling them that my country’s problem is that we too much freedom for our media, and that any attempt to put restraints, no matter how logical, always end up with Media coming down hard on the poor twit who broached the idea.

When Dax Manacsa first introduced the slander and libel provisions in the Revised Penal Code to us all those years ago in PolSci 101, what immediately caught my attention was the term in the provisions that said libel and slander could be charged on somebody regardless of whether the statement under question was true or not. To the law, it didn’t matter whether what you wrote or said about the person is true or not; it was the intent of the act that mattered. If one’s verbal or written statement directed at another had the intent to harm that person’s honor and dignity in public, it becomes slander or libel.

Media is claiming that libel is an abridgment of the constitutional guarantee to Freedom of the Press, along with that for expression and speech. It is presented as some sort of sword of Damocles, a threat to every journalist that they should tone the language and criticism lest they get slapped silly with libel cases, with their attendant demand for the payment of damages, often in ludicrous amounts of money.

But in my mind, this option is the one thing that actually protects the Philippine public from a rapacious Fourth Estate. And rapacious it is, as well as irresponsible and lacking sorely of the objectivity required of true journalism.

If Doreen Fernandez’ statement to us Comm. Sophies in journ class holds true, than what media organization can claim moral ascendancy enough to say that, yes, it does give reportage that is responsible, factual and above reproach? Because even the PDI And PCIJ are guilty of slanting news reports and in-depth analysis.

To be fair, there is a certain standard on when you file libel, especially against agents of the Fourth Estate. An expose can be done with it being so factual and thoroughly done that there is no hint of malice involved in the reportage. The presentation of information on the shenanigans of a person should be enough indictment, as we must believe that society’s public facade has a shared set of values that punishes certain… deviancy in behavior (like too much corruption, say).

But the media in the Philippines has been so stuck in the presentation of data as sensational as possible that its almost obscene. For example, who do you know really likes Mike Arroyo? The guy is, perhaps, the symbol for all that is wrong in Philippine politics. Yet, if you closely at all the reportage done on him, particularly the Jose Pidal thing, is there, really (anti-GMA sentiment aside), any solid evidence of his corruption?

All media presented, again and again, were the stuff their darlings were spoonfeeding the various press corps and reporters. I know of no single media organization that did the nitty-gritty of actually doing an in-depth investigation on whether or not there was actual merit on the accusations of the First Gentleman having spirited away more public money than all the corrupt leaders from Ferdinand Marcos to Jose Velarde. And when Ping Lacson went into that thing on Arroyo’s supposed mistress, to me that was just too much. It was like vaudeville.

Or what about stuff, say, Billy Esposo and Conrado de Quiros writes? There is that argument that democracy allows you – in fact, encourages you – to engage such vitriolic and biased writers in public debate. The clashing of opinions is the bedrock of democracy, the key to its survivability and dynamism.

Yet there must be at least a fair level of parity between contestants in order for this to work. But how do you challenge the likes of Esposo and de Quiros? How do you question a post over at PCIJ made by Alecks Palabrico, or those made by Manolo Quezon in his various blogs? I’ve seen PDI post “opposition” (meaning, pro-Admin) Letters to the Editor that actually enhanced the criticized writer’s position because the L2E writer was made to look stupid. Or they printed a L2E that was stupid in the first place. I’ve seen PCIJ not ask the other side of a story.

We must remove from the discussion the pretensions of morality that we have so long adopted. If only media were as truly moral as it PRs itself to be, then perhaps there is basis in demanding for the rescinding of libel from our laws. But the truth of the matter is our media has been so drunk in the immense level of freedom given it by the post-Marcos milieu that it refuses to acknowledge that it has done much harm in its claim of the public needing to know.

Reporters ask for money and/or favors, and Editors can and do keep certain information from coming out. Columnists – the vanguard of the so-called “punditocracy” – can say anything and everything they want regardless of fact or propriety. There are tricks in the trade that allow us to make you look and sound the way we want whether on print or on screen.

Media has such immense powers it can be so overbearing at times. As the self-appointed guardian of democracy and the public – they need to know, after all! – Media has forgotten that every right has a corresponding responsibility. Just as freedom of expression, speech, religion and the press are bedrocks of democracy, so too is the demand of democracy from its adherents that there must be responsibility in the exercise of these rights.

What power does a single human being have against that of the monolith that is the Fourth Estate? Media can display all your dirty, disgusting laundry to all 80 million Filipinos and then some, since new media allows you to reach farther than ever before, and in real time too. All in the spirit of democracy and the “right” of the people to know.

Given such a power, what recourse does an individual, no matter how highly placed in government or society, has if the libel laws are rescinded?

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4 Responses to Libel and the freedom of the press

  1. MLQ3 says:

    i think it needs pointing out no one -not even media- is proposing abolishing libel as an offense. the argument’s over whether libel should be a criminal offense or not. no one is questioning the right of an offended individual to sue for damages. but the involvement of the state, which is required when something is categorized as a crime, is another story.

    even in the usa, the discussion revolves around that question. the chilling effect comes from the involvement of the state as a party to the filing of criminal charges.

  2. Azure Phoenix says:

    Ok, Manolo, so you’re saying that Media won’t mind if the nature of libel was changed from criminal to civil?

    Because, if I get you right, the issue wasn’t about Mike Arroyo filing all those libel suits but about the nature of the offense itself, which would have involved the State. Which is, lest anyone forget, headed by his wife.

    Sorry if I got the wrong impression, but it would seem like Media was reacting rather negatively to the slapping of libel suits because someone – nevermind that it was an Arroyo – had the gall to do so, not because of the character of the charge being levied.

    Because from what I understand, democracy is also about checks-and-balances, not only within government but among the different “Estates.” The… assault on libel by the whole of the Fourth Estate looked to me like Media wanting to exercise its rights without any possible check.

    Call me idealistic (I can still be, after 8 July 2005? Uh-MAZING), but any responsible reportage by any media organization should be in itself a shield against libel. The law was clear that the defining issue was one of intent, not of truth, and any responsible treatment of an issue by media SHOULD preclude any question of any malice or intent to disparage that someone’s honor, no matter how despicable the person, in public.

    If anything from media was shorn of malicious intent, shouldn’t there be no chilling effect? Any journalist or commentator should be confident that the law would be on their side, and therefore anything government does would not only fail, but be added mileage to the whole issue; “Big Brother Bears Down on Poor, Hapless Guardians of Truth”, news on 6.

    And being media in a country where its clear who the people listen to more, the bar of public opinion would be on media’s side. I think we both know how powerful that can be. It helped save the Inquirer, after all, despite everything Erap did to bring it down.

    I guess I’m just worried, because media has become so powerful, and I don’t see any means of checking this power outside of even the remote threat of libel. Who watches the Watchmen of the Fourth Estate?

  3. MLQ3 says:

    competition, for one, is a check-and-balance, a thoroughly abusive or senasationalistic media outfit will lose readers/viewers eventually.

    i think the case of the president’s husband is complicated, but these are the main issues at hand:

    1. he maintained he’s not a public figure, and therefore, not bound by the wider latitude usually given media to scrutinize and comment on the actions of public figures.

    2. there is the question of whether his being the president’s husband means that fiscals will jump to accomodate his cases, and whether judges will try the cases more vigorously; and since libel is a crime, the state becomes a party to the case and the police power is used to haul journalists off to be charged -which has a chilling effect in general, but particularly so when bail is paid but the accused aren’t allowed to leave jail quickly.

    3. therefore, whether a report is actually not libelous or not ends up beside the point -in which case, however well, or conscientiously written, a story ends up being no shield against harassment at all.

    4. it’s precisely because of this that libel, the grounds for it, and its classification as a crime, should be reconsidered. also, the distinction between the more thorough scrutiny public officials or those who choose a higher profile in the public eye, have to endure, and the greater protection those who live quietly and out of the public eye, should receive.

  4. Azure Phoenix says:

    Hmm… Ok, Manolo, thanx for clearing those points up.

    The fear in my case really was that there won’t be an effective check to Philippine Media’s power. Few developing countries in the world have a Fourth Estate as influential as we have, with many of its members crossing the boundary from merely Gatekeepers – itself a significant power, if you subscribe to the notion that information, and the access to it, is an important aspect of 21st century life – to Strategic Constituents.

    But, yes, at the end of the day, there is a reason for the Consti itself enshrining the right to a free media. Any democracy that has the gall to call itself a liberal one like we do must subscribe to this unless it wishes to reinvent itself farther to the left or right.

    Its just scary when you think that one aspect of society can even have the potential to exercise immense power without an effective check. Belief in the inherent goodness of man is good and all, but I’d like to know I have a bit of kryptonite tucked somewhere for when a protector becomes a rabid beast.

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