TURNING POINT: Press Freedom in the Balance

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 16 February) — The press is a necessity in the working of a democracy. It is an institution external to the government that secures check and balance in governance to protect the interest and welfare of the people.

The press informs and educates the public of what is happening in the land to attain responsible citizenship and governance. The fulfilment of this role is only possible if the press is free, that is, if the press is allowed freedom of expression.

Press freedom may be viewed as an extension of the individual’s freedom of speech and of expression whose exercise is strengthened and expanded in reach traditionally through the print and broadcast media and, of late, also through the various platforms in the cyber media.

But like any other freedoms, press freedom is not absolute. There is no such thing. The exercise of freedom is like swinging your arm to any direction you want as long that you don’t hit the nose of the person next to you. Your freedom ends where the freedom or rights of others begin.

For the responsible exercise of press freedom and to protect any individual from its abuse, the laws on libel, slander or oral defamation are put in place. The courts decide on issues anent the infringement of press freedom and the violation of the rights of the individual.

Incidentally, the exercise of press freedom may be carried out by organizations composed of generally trained or experienced professionals in communication and, in the advent of the Internet, by enterprising individuals all of whom also have private rights even as they play the role as agents of the press.

The plight of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is a case in point. Maria Ressa, apparently for command responsibility, is a co-accused of a cyber libel case for an article in Rappler published in May 2012, some four months before the passage of the country’s cyber libel law in September 2012. She was arrested by the NBI by the force of an arrest warrant issued by a court on February 12, 2019. The warrant was served to her past office hours the following day, compromising thus her right to post bail. A night court in Pasay City was of no help because it was, accordingly uncertain of its jurisdiction to grant bail over the case that was pending at a regional trial court. Thus, for failing to avail of a bail for her temporary liberty she was detained that evening in NBI facilities until the bail was availed the following day.

The plight of Rappler/ Maria Ressa is perceived by those in the business of journalism as an attack on press freedom. But for the apologists of the government, Rappler or Maria Ressa is not the press and the issues affecting them is not about violation of press freedom but on the violation of the laws of the land, like tax evasion and the illegal operation of the news site in addition to individual libel cases against Rappler journalists.

President Duterte never hid from the public his displeasure with Rappler over its “twisted” reporting about him or his administration. Thus, the revocation earlier by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Rappler’s certificate of registration, in effect its license to operate was perceived by many quarters as a retaliatory act to punish Rappler, which is tantamount to muzzling the press. It doesn’t help that the move of the SEC was prompted no less than by the Solicitor General who is under the command of the President. And the undue interest of the Department of Justice in reviving a private libel case that was already dismissed  two years back by the NBI itself, and particularly the serving of arrest warrant to the accused Maria Ressa in an unholy hour, appears to any sane person harassment plain and simple. Indeed, it is doubtful if the DOJ would have reopened by itself the libel case against Maria Ressa filed by an offended businessman without the order of an authority who is greatly pissed by Rappler. It was an opportunity that could not be missed.

It may be safe to say that any act by agents of the state that impedes, restricts or discourages the press from exercising its duty to inform and educate the citizens on the affairs of the nation infringes on press freedom.

But again, the final arbiter on freedom is not public opinion but the courts of the land. We can only hope the courts are free to speak the truth to uphold justice. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental)