Freedom of Press: A Touchstone of Democracy

This speech was delivered by Chief Justice Puno during the International Conference on Impunity and Press Freedom in Peninsula Manila on February 27, 2008.

Freedom of Press: A Touchstone of Democracy
by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno

We are here now to strengthen democracy, especially one of its touchstones— the freedom of the press.

It is a noble thing that we set out to do, but it is also one which is difficult to accomplish. Thus, it is important that before we begin with our endeavor, we must first ensure that we all understand full who “we” are, where “here” is, why we are here “now,” and what “democracy” is basically all about. 

It is a dangerous time for those who report the truth. From 1192 to 2008, 679 journalists have been killed worldwide. The Philippines has the 5th highest number of incidents where journalists have been murdered. Since 2001, 70 journalists have been killed in the line of duty on Philippine soil. Of the cases filed as a result of these killings, only one has been resolved, 6 are undergoing trial, 18 are under investigation, 4 have been dismissed, and 4 are undergoing prosecution.

“We” are persons who can do something that will have a profound impact in defense of freedom of the press. “We” are the advocates, experts, journalists, and jurists coming from all over the world who share the same concern over the rampant human rights violations around us. I emphasize that it is “we” who can do something, because we can better effect change not in our individual stations, but as a group working together. 

“Here” is a conference organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance with the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility aimed at three objectives: first, to contribute to ongoing multi-sectoral efforts, as well as national, regional, and international campaigns, to fight impunity in the Philippines by finding, discussing, and generating insights and models for enhancing the rule of law, free expression, and human rights in general; second, to bridge Philippine campaigns on impunity with similar efforts around the world; and third, to raise public awareness about impunity and its effect in the Philippines on both the freedoms of the press and of expression. “Here” is a forum for us to work together as a group.

“We” are “here” because of urgency of “now.” It is the culture of impunity that encourages attacks on journalists. Unless and until we do something to submerge this pernicious culture, these attacks will continue to litter our collective consciousness with corpses of people who are bearers of truth. 

“Democracy” is all about the voice of the people. It is, as John Stuart Mill defines it, “government by discussion.” Imperative to discussion are the cognate freedoms of information, of expression, and of the press. Hence, no less than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assures that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” The dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.

Democracy in this country is under siege because bullets fired at the direction of journalists pierce not only human flesh, but also our republican ideals. In their Joint Declaration regarding International Mechanisms for Promoting Freedom of Expression, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression identify two threats to freedom of expression and the free flow of information and ideas, which have now reached crisis proportions in many parts of the world: first, dubbed censorship by killing, are attacks on journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression; and second, is the abuse of restrictive defamation and libel laws. In the same declaration, each State was reminded of its obligation to take adequate measures to end  the climate of impunity. Such measures should include devoting sufficient resources and attention to preventing attacks on journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, investigating such attacks when they do occur, bringing those responsible to justice, and compensating victims. 

Let not our knees wobble. These to challenges, censorship by murders and the restraint of libel laws, have been with us since time immemorial. Legal historians trace the roots of freedom of expression in Athens, Greece as far back as 800-600 B.C. Even then, expressive freedom was given only to select “citizens” which did not include women, resident aliens and juveniles. The Athenian majority was not accorded the expressive freedom by their aristocratic rulers.

During the Roman time, freedom of expression was likewise severely restricted by the ruling class. The Caesars controlled the distribution of news to the people. Without exception, they smothered dissent against their government. They hounded their critics to their graves. 

So it was in England. Here the struggle to eliminate censorship took more than 500 years. The Crown of England was just as intolerant of criticisms. The 1274 De Scandalis Magmatum presaged the beginnings of seditious libel law. This edict proscribed political dissent. From the early 1500s, through the Puritan Revolution, until the late 17th century, printing was regulated by the Crown and the restrictions were implemented through the church. Scribes tell us that it was during Henry VIII’s reign that royal measures were enacted to censor heretical materials. Thus, there was a special law to restrict the distribution of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament. The law states:

            There shall be no annotations or preambles in the Bibles or New Testaments in English. The Bibile shall not be read in English in any church. No women or artificers, prentices, journeymen, servingmen of the degree of yeomen or under, husbandmen, nor labourers, shall read the New Testament in English… anything contrary to the King’s instructions… shall be thereof convict… his first offense recant, for his second abjure and bearer a fagot, and for his third shall be adjudged an heretick, and be burned. (Neal 1855) 

The English Court of Star Chamber, a secret tribunal, was an instrument of censorship. It meted out such punishments as levying unlimited fines, imprisonment, the pillory, flogging, mutilation and branding. In 1630 for instance, a certain Alexander Leighten published “An Appeal to Parliament” in which he urged the superiority of the Scriptures over the monarchy. On orders of the Star Chamber, Leighten was taken to Westminster and was “whipped, had one of his ears cut off, his nose slit and one side of his face branded.” A week later, the mutilation was repeated on the other side of his face. In 1641, the Star Chamber was dissolved due to its surfeit of excesses. In fine, history tells us that no amount of mutilation, no amount of murders of truth tellers will kill freedom of press.

 

The second threat to freedom of the press is abuse of defamation and libel laws. The origins of defamation date back to Greece. As aforestated, it was in Athens, Greece that certain types of “citizens” were given freedom of expression. But even then, these “citizens” were made answerable for slander and sedition. This restriction was carried on in Roman times and got embedded in English common law. Early English defamation laws were of a different kind. Under early English common law, the truthfulness of a statement is not a defense. Hence, a truthful criticism of the Crown could result in a severe penalty. English common law recognized four types of libel: (1) blasphemous libel, which is any speech that denied the existence of God or ridiculed any Christian doctrine; (2) seditious libel or criticism of the government, its leaders or policies; (3) obscene libel, which is the forerunner of obscenity laws, and (4) private libel, which is speech that injured the reputation of another person. Again, history teaches us that the misuse and abuse of libel laws against media practitioners through the ages did not stamp out the flame of freedom of the press, and it never will.

 

At this point, let me share with you our humble efforts to strengthen democracy in our country by enhancing human rights and giving more flesh to the freedom of the press. On the area  of human rights, our High Court has promulgated the Writ of Amparo and the Writ of Habeas Data. It is interesting to note that the provenance of both the Rule on the Writ of Amparo and the Rule on the Habeas Data is a forum much like this one. The National Consultative Summit on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances, held last July 16-17, 2007 addressed also the culture of impunity that stalks our country.

The Rule on the Writ of Amparo which protects the victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances took effect last October 24, 2007. In the Supreme Court alone, a total of 14 writs of Amparo have already been issued out of 18 petitions that prayed for the writ. Out of these 14 cases, 5 have already been decided by the Court of Appeals from October 2007 to present.

 

On the other hand, the Rule on the Writ of Habeas Data took effect last February 2, 2008. This rule is an independent remedy to enforce the right to informational privacy and the complementary “right to truth.” It is also an additional remedy to protect an individual’s civil rights. This writ is available “to any person whose right to privacy in life, or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity engaged in the gathering, collecting, or storing of data or information regarding the person, family, home, and correspondence of the aggrieved party.” Reliefs include the “deletion, destruction, or rectification of the erroneous data or information.” 

Just a month old, no writ of habeas data has been issued yet. It is an excellent human rights tool used mostly in countries recovering from military dictatorships. It enforces the right to truth, which is the bedrock of the rule of law. Observers say that with the promulgation of these two writs, the number of victims of extrajudicial and enforced disappearances had declined. Perhaps it is too early to rejoice over their deterrent effect. This fight for human rights is one fight full of commas and no period; a fight where you never write “30.”

On the second area (i.e. protecting the freedom of the press), the High Court, through the Administrative Circular No. 08-2008, issued Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases. In this Circular, the High Court directed judges to determine whether the imposition of a fine alone in libel cases would best serve the interest of justice. The High Court cited cases where it refused  to incarcerate those accused of libel but instead penalized them with the payment of fine. Somehow, this Circular has caused Congress to fast track debate on bills decriminalizing libel. I respectfully suggest that Congress should also look into the idea of putting a cap on civil liability for libel of media people. It is not only the threat of imprisonment that handcuffs media. The punches of poverty coming from threats of unlimited civil liability can also convert some of their backbones into mere wishbones. Just a few days ago or on February 15, 2008, we decided the case of Chavez v. The Secretary of Justice and the National Telecommunications Commission (G.R. No. 188338). We struck as unconstitutional prior restraints the warnings issued by the respondent public officials that media people will be prosecuted if they air the controversial wire-tapped conversation between the sitting President and a Commissioner of the COMELEC allegedly revealing fraud in the 2004 national elections.

 Let me submit that attempts to curtail freedom of the press all over the world will never end. We should never weary in its protection. I end by emphasizing just one particular value promoted by freedom of the press— the search for truth. I can do no better than quoting the explanation of First Amendment scholar Thomas Emerson:

xxx A central value of free and open debate is the discovery of truth and knowledge through the free trade of ideas. In language that is reminiscent of John Milton’s Areopagitica and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Emerson stated,

 

an individual who seeks knowledge and truth must hear all sides of the question, consider all alternatives, test his judgement by exposing it to opposition, and make full use of different minds. Discussion must be kept open no matter how certainly true an accepted opinion may be; many of the most widely acknowledged truths have turned out to be erroneous. (Emerson 1970, 6-7)

 

The idea that free expression is central to discovering truth is not just discussed in philosophical tomes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It appears in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 dissent in Abrams, in which he passionately stated, “[T]he ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas— that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the marketplace” (Abrahams v. United States [1919] 630). It also appears in Justice Louis D. Brandel’s 1927 concurring opinion in Whitney, in which he referred to the Founding Fathers and how “they believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth” (Whitney v. California [1927] 374). Brandeis added, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence” (Cornwell, Freedom of the Press, pp. 4-5)

 Today, our society is bedeviled by the enforced disappearances of some votaries of democracy, especially media practitioners. An enforced silence on these enforced disappearances cannot but give impetus to its growing culture of impunity. It is this enforced silence that we ought to break for if there is anything that democracy can ill-afford it is the sovereignty of the deaf and the dumb. It is speech and speech— plus that will dissipate the darkness that today hovers over the heads of the Filipino people. Speech is the function of the press. Speech— plus is the action of the sovereign people. Let them converge for they will lead us to the doorstep of truth.

 A pleasant day to all.      

 

 

[cmfrnews] Legal experts, press freedom advocates flying in from Asia, US, Europe, and Latin America to address the killing of journalists in the Philippines

CMFR- MANILA – Legal experts and press freedom advocates from Asia, Europe, the US, and from as far as Latin America are flying into Manila this week to help find solutions to a long-festering crisis in the Philippines: the unabated and unsolved killing of journalists throughout the country.

Prosecutors, judges, human rights advocates and even high-level justices from such countries as Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Spain, the US, Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, are expected to meet with Philippine media, rights advocates, and members of the national legal community to address the topic of and to attend a conference on “Impunity and Press Freedom” in the Philippines from Wednesday, February 27 to Friday, February 29.

Welcoming the foreign experts, said the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and its Manila-based member, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), will be no less then Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, who will deliver the opening keynote address to the conference.

“The Philippines, unfortunately, is notorious for the number of journalists that have been killed in recent years and over the past two decades,” says Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the CMFR.

“It is one of the sad ironies this week, as we celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the People Power revolution. The Philippines free press – side by side with human rights advocates – is under the gun, and this crucial pillar of our democracy has remained vulnerable to lawlessness, weaknesses in the judicial system, and general apathy of the national government.”

CMFR notes that no less than 70 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which along with the Open Society Insitute (OSI) is supporting this week’s conference, in 2006 called the Philippines one of the “most murderous” places for journalists anywhere in the world.

During the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo alone, CMFR says at least 33 journalists have been murdered in the line of duty. There have been few arrests, and zero conviction of the masterminds behind the murders.

“That’s what impunity means,” SEAPA executive director Roby Alampay says. “The word comes from the Latin ‘impunis’ which means ‘unpunished’. It refers to the absence of justice that perpetuates a cycle of even more violence and injustice. It is a word that they contend with in such places as Colombia and Argentina, and it is a problem that we all must solve if Philippine democracy is to survive.”

The Updated Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2005 defines impunity as: “the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”

 

 

Oozing Tears for US$150M

Robert Bolisay, Jr.

Just got a message this morning that says the alleged kick back the former Commission on Election chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. was asking from the US$329 million national broadband network deal between the China’s ZTE Corporation and the Philippines is worth P6.5 billion (US$150 million).

That amount is more than half the entire government’s budget for the Department of Health and more than five times of the yearly budget of the Philippine General Hospital.

Six point five billion pesos (US$150 million) can pay for 49,000 patients who need open heart surgery, and 325,000 patients who need cataract surgery.

Hold your tears; there’s one more.

The amount can purchase antibiotics for at least 6,500 patients.

This was just one (1) anomalous deal. One corrupt government official.

Many Filipinos are dying without the benefit of healthcare. A lot of poor patients die because they cannot afford the medical service they need.

Ok, now, we may allow that saline fluid ooze on our cheeks from our eyes.

Or…is shedding tears the only thing you can do?

— Robert Bolisay Jr.

The Lone Man of Pampanga

Robert Bolisay, Jr.

A friend in the media has told me that this about 8-month-provincial revenue under Governor Ed Panlilio is much higher than the whole gubernatorial term collection when stuntman-turned action star-turned politician Lito Lapid was still the governor.

I am talking about the quarry revenue in Pampanga that reached P153.6 million as of February 20, since Gov. Ed took over as governor on June 30, 2007.

The quick questions in my mind were why the previous administration was not able to do such? What happened?

I ask my friend if he could acquire a black and white of what he was telling me. The revenue reports during the Lapid term and the present one, so I could do some juxtaposition.

Now, the lone man of Pampanga, Panlilio, is about to be charged with graft case. According to the news, the lawyers of his vice governor, Joseller Guiao, are preparing the case.

Why?

Firstly, why I said he is the lone man of Pampanga? His vice governor said that the 13-provincial board authorized him to file the case against Ed with the Ombudsman.

Now, why he is about to be charged with the graft case? Because of his alleged refusal to implement a new quarry ordinance.

That new ordinance was endorsed by the Pampanga Mayor’s League in August 2007. Then, the provincial board approved it on September 2007.

I am sure you see clearly he is the lone man of Pampanga.

The Pampanga Mayor’s League endorsed the ordinance. The 13-member provincial board approved it. When Panlilio allegedly refused its implementation, the board authorized the vice governor to file the charges. The vice governor said his lawyers are preparing the case against Panlilio.

So, what Gov. Ed has to say about this?

He said that the implementing rules and regulations were submitted to the Commission on Audit, Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Department of Finance for the agencies perusal.

Now, if it is true, then, when Panlilio said that the ordinance is in the process of implementation by his office, he is telling the truth.

If I were the vice governor or a member of the board, I would confirm with the three agencies if they had received any from Panlilio’s office.

If they did receive, it may mean that what the Vice, the Board, and the League is saying does not hold any water.

What is with the ordinance by the way?

The Ordinance No. 176 led to the creation of the provincial federation of quarry association and municipal association of quarry operators, and also required the purchase of official receipts by the authorized representative of the provincial federation. The said new quarry law also gives regulatory powers to the mayors.

According to Panlilio, the ordinance impaired his regulatory powers to mop shenanigans in the multimillion-peso sand business.

Gov. Ed, perhaps, is true in straightening out the said mischiefs in sand hauling in Pampanga.

We have found, perhaps, an honest government officer here in the person of Ed.

He is able to increase quarry collections for Pampanga, which is considered to be the highest collection so far.

I believe he has proven something. He, the Vice, the Board, and the League ought to work together for the benefit of the people of Pampanga.

The next I would like to find out is how the grass root will benefit from the revenue. #

–Robert Bolisay, Jr.

Baguio media join SC case to stop press freedom threat

NUJP- BAGUIO CITY – Media practitioners in this summer capital city signed on Monday a petition to intervene on a case filed by Manila-based media practitioners which seeks the aid of the Supreme Court to stop government agencies from continuously threatening press freedom. 

The sixteen journalists alleged in their petition-in-intervention for prohibition and injunction that they feel with equal effects the threats, intimidation, fear and apprehension as a result of government agencies move which they claimed serves as threat to press freedom and on their job to bring information to the public. 

The Baguio-based journalists identified the respondent government agencies as the offices of the Executive Secretary, Department of Justice (DoJ), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of Defense, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police including its Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) which continuously issue threats, warnings, advisories that are couched in a general language that affect journalists and media practitioners – not only in Manila – but in the whole country.

“The acts, threats, warnings, advisories, intimidation of the respondents produce the same, if not greater fear and chilling effect upon provincial press,” claimed the intervenors, whose intervention was pursuant to Rule 19, Section 2 of the Rules of Court. 

“If the said act of respondents could be committed against major and leading national media outlets and companies and leading journalists based in the Metro Manila area, it would be much easier for respondents and those under their command, to stifle press freedom in the provinces and inculcate fear upon members of the provincial press and small provincial media outfits,” added the intervenors, who are from seven local and national media.

Press freedom’ fight

The Baguio journalists claimed that their intervention is in-fact a fight against the government’s effort to stifle press freedom. 

While hundreds of kilometers away from Manila, the journalists clarified that they feel the threat among media after the Manila Hotel incident on November 29, 2007 as they defend that their media colleagues had done nothing wrong in covering the incident. 

“We would have done the same had we been there, or the same kind of incident happen in Baguio or the Cordilleras, as we feel it would have been part of our duty and function to gather the news and to report the same to the public who has the right to be informed,” the Baguio journalists reiterated. 

In supporting the petition, the said journalists claimed that the experiences of journalists in the Manila Pen who were manhandled by the government forces can happen to them hence they decided for the intervention.

“In fact, most of the media killed during the time of GMA were from the provinces. The threat and actuations by the respondents have widespread chilling effects on members of the provincial media. We want this threat to stop,” pointed out Franklyn Cimatu, one of the intervenors. 

The intervenors claimed in their petition that they do not aim the unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the rights of the original parties, but provide the court more accurate’ view of the extent and effect of the acts of the respondents complained of and how it affects Philippine media, including those in the provinces who are more vulnerable on the said effects.   


Land mark twin cases vs. Media repression

It can be recalled that Manila-based journalists after the Manila Pen incident filed on January 28 two cases against government agencies for the continuing media repression. One case filed at the Supreme Court seeks for Prohibition, Injunction with Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) while another class suit against government agencies was filed at the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati which prays for damages and TRO. 

The Baguio journalists who signed as petitioners-in-intervenors are Pablito Sanidad (Midland Courier), Arthur Allad-iw (Northern Dispatch), Renato Samuel Bautista (Baguio Sunstar Daily), Desiree Caluza and Franklyn Cimatu (Philippine Daily Inquirer), Artemio Dumlao and Fernando Zapata (Philippine Star), Dhobie De Guzman (ABS-CBN Northern Luzon), Thomas Picana (Manila Times), Martina Sales, Rimaliza Opina, and Ernesto Olson Jr. (Baguio Sunstar Daily), Brenda Dacpano, Cyrene Reyes, and Elina Velasco-Ramo (Northern Dispatch). 

The petition-on-intervention was signed by the Baguio journalists at the Laperal Building, Session Road of this city.  

Lawyers of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) of the Baguio-Cordillera chapter serve as counsel for the Baguio journalist. # By Arthur L. Allad-iw

 

IFJ Welcomes Judicial Intervention in Murder of Journalist

Media Release: Philippines
February 21, 2008

IFJ Welcomes Judicial Intervention in Murder of Journalist 

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomes a decision by Judge Simeon Dumdum to endorse the arrest warrants of two suspects in the murder of journalist Marlene Esperat in the Philippines in 2005.

Two officials from the Department of Agriculture, Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay, challenged the warrants issued on Feburary 4, 2008, arguing that they were outside the court’s jurisdiction.   

However, Judge Dumdum, of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 7, of Cebu City, concluded that the case was an extension to the court’s first ruling against four men already sentenced to life imprisonment for Esperat’s murder. 

Esperat, a journalist for the weekly Midland Review, was gunned down inside her house in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, while having dinner with her family on March 24, 2005. According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), an IFJ affiliate, Esperat was targeted because she exposed misappropriation of funds within the Department of Agriculture. 

“This is one step forward for the Philippines police, courts and judicial system in reducing the frequent targeted violent attacks against journalists,” said IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park.

“The decision by Judge Dumdum should set the precedent for courts to pursue thorough investigations into violence against journalists.  

“All journalists should be able to practise their profession without fearing for their personal safety. Local authorities and the judiciary play an important role in ensuring press freedom can prevail by protecting journalists and all members of society against violence.”

In its 2007 report, Confronting the Perils of Journalism in the Philippines, the IFJ-NUJP Safety Office recorded 91 murders of journalists and media workers in the Philippines over 20 years. The only convictions recorded for the murder of a journalist are those of Estanislao Bismanos, Gerry Cabayag, Randy Fernandez-Grecia and Rowie Barua, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006 in relation to Esperat’s murder. Only eight other investigations remain active.    

The IFJ joins the NUJP in welcoming Judge Dumdum’s decision to uphold the arrest warrants in the Esperat case and moves by the police and the courts to pursue cases of felony against journalists. This action should serve as a warning that those who believe they can intimidate and bully journalists into silence will be prosecuted.

 

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0919

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries

Supreme court rules that government warnings constituted prior restraint

CMFR/Philippines— The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that threatening statements from the Justice secretary and the National Telecommunications Commission warning media not to air a wiretapped conversation between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and an elections commissioner constituted “impermissible forms of prior restraints on the right to free speech and press.”

The 38-page decision, written by SC Chief Justice Reynato Puno on 15 February 2008, “nullif(ied) the official statements made by respondents on June 8, and 11, 2005 warning the media on airing the alleged wiretapped conversation between the President and other personalities, for constituting unconstitutional prior restraint on the exercise of freedom of speech and of the press.”

“Issues revolving on their construct must be decided on a case to case basis, always based on the peculiar shapes and shadows of each case. But in cases where the challenged acts are patent invasions of a constitutionally protected right, we should be swift in striking them down as nullities per se. A blow too soon struck for press freedom is preferred than a blow too late,” the decision said.

On 2005, allegedly wiretapped mobile phone conversations between Arroyo and former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilo Garcillano were circulated in the Internet and through CDs. The conversations, which discussed the alleged rigging of the 2004 presidential elections in favor of Arroyo, also involved the alleged voices of other high-ranking government officials. The wiretapped conversations were then known as the “Hello, Garci tapes,” in reference to Arroyo’s initial address to Garcillano at the beginning of the conversation.

Shortly after the tapes were circulated, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez warned reporters that they could be held liable under the Anti-Wiretapping Act if they are found in possession of the tapes or if they air its contents. Gonzalez said that anybody in possession of the tapes could be arrested. Gonzalez also ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate media organizations believed to have distributed, played, or printed the contents of the tapes.

The National Telecommunications Commission, the government body tasked to regulate the airwaves subsequently issued a press release which stated that “NTC gives fair warning to radio and television owners/operators to observe the anti-wiretapping law and pertinent circulars on program standards.”

Lawyer Francisco Chavez, former solicitor general, filed a suit asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order to prohibit Gonzalez and the NTC from further making similar statements and orders that may infringe on the public’s right to know.

The decision by the High Tribunal also said that “the Court should not be misinterpreted as devaluing violations of law. By all means, violations of law should be vigorously prosecuted by the State for they breed their own evil consequence. “

The SC however said that “the need to prevent their violation cannot per se trump the exercise of free speech and free press, a preferred right whose breach can lead to greater evils.”

“For this failure of the respondents alone to offer proof to satisfy the clear and present danger test, the Court has no option but to uphold the exercise of free speech and free press. There is no showing that the feared violation of the anti-wiretappping law clearly endangers the security of the state,” the decision stated.

The decision also closely examined the law on freedom of speech, of expression and of the press, as well as content-neutral and content-based regulations.

Chief presidential legal counsel Sergio Apostol downplayed the landmark resolution and said that the decision by the Supreme Court, also known as the court of last resort, was not yet final.

The full text of the decision, along with the concurring and dissenting opinions of the justices, can be accessed at the Supreme Court website. (http://www.supremec ourt.gov. ph/jurisprudence /2008/feb2008/ 168338_index. htm).

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