ADVOCACY MINDANOW: Assault on press freedom

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/27 August) — Here’s a planned assault on press freedom that the Philippine press must fight AGAINST to the end.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada filed Senate Bill No. 380 that would require journalists to pass professional exams before they are allowed or accredited to practice their profession like doctors, lawyers, engineers or other professionals. Those who fail the exams will not be accredited.

We don’t know what prompted the good senator to do this. He ought to know that journalism is a distinct calling or craft that enjoys special and full protection accorded by the Philippine Constitution itself. Everyone is free to write and express his views under the principle of free speech. He doesn’t have to get prior permits to write and express his opinions or views. One can even publish his own newspaper freely without securing any prior permit or license. In fact, journalists are so free they are free to even make fools of themselves, if they so wish. Prior restraint is a constitutional no-no! That’s what freedom of the press is all about. Of course, a journalist will be liable AFTER for what he writes (libel or civil cases for damages) but PRIOR restraint is anathema to press freedom.

This is not to be construed however that journalists are free to malign and libel anyone. There is a recourse given to the public for redress. Civil and criminal cases can be filed against them AFTER PUBLICATION and this does not constitute infringement of the freedom of the press. PRIOR RESTRAINT before publication is what the constitution does not countenance.

RADIO AND TV — A slight distinction however will have to be made between print media and electronic media (radio and TV). In the latter case, frequencies have to be approved by government (specifically by the National Telecommunication Commission) before radio or TV stations can broadcast. Government may regulate them or even remove them from the air, if need be. Even movies and shows have to get the approval of the government (in this case the MTRCB) and can be priorly censored.

MY LIBEL CASE –I have spent more than one half of my whole lifetime doing presswork — as a reporter, stringer, correspondent, columnist, editor and now publisher — in between forays in government and lawyering. Some media friends had been saying that a veteran journalist is measured by the number of libel cases filed against him. I don’t have much to brag about on this. Except one libel case that is unforgettable. That happened before Martial Law when PRESIDENT MARCOS filed a case for libel against the MANILA TIMES and his nemesis, SEN. NINOY AQUINO. I just happened to be an unknown reporter from Davao City getting caught in their battle of giants.

Let me recall. I was then Davao correspondent of the Manila TIMES before Martial Law and taking up law at Ateneo de Davao Law School. One day, I got a personal long distance call from no less than the venerable CHINO ROCES, Times publisher himself telling me to cover Senator NINOY who was scheduled to speak in a Davao political rally at the Rizal Park. (Ninoy obviously was Chino’s “fair haired boy” having started his public career as a young TIMES correspondent covering the Korean War). He was to expose the alleged unexplained wealth of President MARCOS citing several mansions and properties here and abroad. It was to be the initial salvo against the President. But since the speech would be made late in the evening and beyond deadline time for the following day’s TIMES issue, Chino told me that he had arranged for the senator to receive me for an exclusive interview at the downtown Imperial Hotel before the scheduled rally. Indeed, Senator Ninoy was waiting for me at the coffee shop. And gave me the full story and a copy of his speech. I dispatched it to the Manila desk by long distance call (no fax or emails yet at that time), worrying that a looming big rain could abort the rally and the speech — a contingency that enterprising reporters must face. Come to think of it, I cannot remember now having checked if Ninoy got to actually deliver the speech as indeed a big rain came that night. But I had a spare copy of his prepared speech that the senator handed to me, just in case.

The following morning, the TIMES printed my bylined story in screaming headline: ‘MARCOS UNEXPLAINED WEALTH EXPOSED”. Malacanang’s retort was swift and furious. President Marcos himself announced he would file libel cases against NINOY, the MANILA TIMES and “that Davao reporter.” I was already in 2nd year law at the Ateneo Law School at that time and I had the biggest scare of my life when Dean PANYONG ESTRELLADO told me: ” Jess, kiss your plans of being a lawyer goodbye.” A libel case, even pending would be a problem in qualifying to take the bar examinations or taking the lawyer’s oath. More so that the President of the Republic, no less, was the one suing. I spent many sleepless nights after that.

I never got to know what exactly happened with the case after I sent to Manila my written statement in my defense. I was so troubled I personally appealed to CHINO to please do something. I was told later that somehow President Marcos dropped it after a much-publicized “gate crash” event where CHINO although uninvited, attended one of the former strongman’s parties where they were seen on a close huddle and serious talk. Some settlement must have been made. I was too far remote down south to know and an insignificant player just caught in the crossfire. But I recall having thanked and expressed my great relief to CHINO when I saw him later. Yes, I was able to take the bar exams, although another unforgettable episode took place later: that of transferring to Manila to join the Philippine Press Institute (again, with CHINO ROCES) and the sudden declaration of Martial Law forcing me to go back to law school and finish my law. (READ “WATCHING THE WATCHDOG” June 2013).

But that was not the end of that episode. One day during Martial Law, a delegation of Davao media men went to Malacanang to meet with President Marcos. I recall it was arranged by businessman-logger JOHN HOFER. In tow were Davao newsmen SERAFIN “JUN” LEDESMA, the fiery JOE JISON and others. When I was introduced to President Marcos (who already looked sick), he immediately noticed my name and first asked whether I was related to his private nurse from Iloilo BELEN DUREZA, and when I said she was my cousin although I resided in Davao City he remarked: “Ah you are the one with the MANILA TIMES. I remember you.” I was not sure whether he remembered me for being “that Davao reporter” who wrote the Ninoy Aquino story. But there could be no other reason for the former President to remember me by. That was then my only closest call to fame! (Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).