THOSE who quickly lined up behind Rappler and its journalist Pia Ranada to back their claim that their right to freedom of the press has been violated by the Duterte government, should understand the scope and meaning of press freedom as protected by our Constitution, and should review whether they have presented their positions in the best light.
I mean particularly the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap), because its statement on the issue looks automatic, and Focap journalist-members carry on their word the prestige and influence of their foreign principals, who presumably are more discerning and seasoned regarding press freedom issues.
Focap members should be able to construe press freedom strictly according to its legal meaning and not stretch it to encompass more rights than are warranted by law. This way, they can avoid suggesting that attending news briefings or doing media coverage are protected rights in themselves.
The constitutional provision on press freedom (Article III, Section 4) reads: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
The provision repeats in the same language the provision of the1935 and1987 constitutions, which attests that press freedom has a long history in this country. And no new government can capriciously change it.
It is curious that the provision covers a host of freedoms – freedom of speech, of expression, of the press, and freedom of assembly. The phrase “of expression” was added by the 1986 Charter-framers so that, according to one Charter-maker, mimicry could also be protected.
Right to publish, broadcast and post
Freedom of the press, in its original conception, meant simply the right to publish. When the term press evolved to include the electronic media (TV and radio), the right was broadened to mean also “the right to broadcast.” Now that media online have also been admitted into the club, the right means also the “right to post online.”
When we restrict press freedom to these meanings, it should be plain that in the current case involving Ms Ranada, there has been no violation of her press freedom. She remains free to post her stories in the Internet through the Rappler website.
She, of course, will argue that her ability to cover the Palace was curtailed by the Presidential Security Group (PSG) when it stopped her from entering the Palace to attend a media briefing.
Readers, let us be clear. Press freedom is inescapably circumscribed by limits, such as the policies set by the agencies or personages who are giving a briefing or interview. Interview subjects can refuse to talk to you. They have rules for accrediting journalists.
In the present case of Ms Ranada, we have a situation where President Duterte gave instructions that she should not be accredited to cover the Palace or his office.
Did President Duterte strangle press freedom when he expressed discomfort with Ranada’s questioning, and then decided to exclude her from Palace briefings?
In the US, the White House is known to periodically bar some journalists on the instructions of its principal occupant.
The public’s right to know
There has sometimes been confusion about freedom of the press because over the years, the original right to publish was extended philosophically by journalists to encompass “the right to know,” in order to justify inquiries, that often conflict with the right to privacy.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger, president of the New York Times, stated the case for the “right to know” in 1956: “The crux is not the publisher’s freedom to print; it is rather the citizen’s right to know.”
It all sounds persuasive. But 10 years later, the right to know came under serious challenge, by some heavy-hitting journalists.
Columnist Max Lerner took a different view in connection with Jacqueline Kennedy’s successful effort to edit materials she had given in confidence to author William Manchester. He contended:
“Clearly there are limits on such a right. We have no right to know about top-secret documents which have not yet been declassified. …Nor have we a right to know private things, even about public officials or their families against their wishes.
“Thus, the right is circumscribed by public policy, by taste, by codes of fairness, by the right of privacy.
“More important than the right to know is the right to publish.”
In his book, Political Dictionary, William Safire has a long essay on the right to know.
He cites some telling and instructive examples.
The Pentagon Papers
In 1971, in the famous case of the Pentagon Papers (it is the subject of a new Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg, “The Post”). The case concerns the publication of excerpts by the New York Times and the Washington Post of a 47-volume study of the origins of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration went to the Supreme Court to enjoin publication.
The court, voting 5 to 3, upheld the newspapers’ right to publish the documents.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a dissenting opinion wrote: “The newspapers make a derivative claim under the First Amendment; they denominate this right as the public’s right to know; by implication, the Times asserts a sole trusteeship by virtue of its journalist’s ‘scoop.’ The right is asserted as an absolute. Of course, the First Amendment right itself is not an absolute, as Justice Holmes so long ago pointed out in his aphorism concerning the right to shout fire in a crowded theater.”
The public’s right not to know
The court decision made clear that under circumstances presenting a clear danger or an overriding national interest, the courts would uphold the public’s right not to know.
Russian author and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn used that phrase in a cultural context in a Harvard commencement address in June of 1978.
Solzhenitsyn said: “People have a right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works, who leads a meaningful life, doesn’t need this excessive flow of information.”
Solzhenitsyn’s dissent should alert us to the fact that press freedom is not an unalloyed blessing.
Journalism does not always accomplish something positive with its protected right and nosiness.
Fake news law
In France, they are debating today a fake news law which was introduced by President Macron at the start of the year.
His goal is to safeguard French democracy from fake news.
Commentators were quick to attack him for oversimplifying the problem. But others contended that Macron is on the right track.
There is need to rethink the rules of engagement in social media and hold accountable producers, distributors and financiers of content, without compromising on freedom of speech and of the press.
In my view, online media organizations still have a lot to learn and to explain. I have been an editor (newspaper, magazine and books) for much of my professional life; so, I’m confident that I can spot sloppy or counterfeit journalism when I see it.
I visited the Rappler website yesterday to see for myself the service that it is offering. On the home page of Rappler, nearly every story is about itself and its travails. It does not provide a picture of our public life day by day. It is nowhere comparable to the daily service that media organizations like the Manila Times provide with their full complement of journalists, editors, analysts and columnists.
So, I ask: is it right that Rappler is dragging down our republic to the depths of disrepute for exposing its foreign ownership and fakery?