|The search for truth begins with free speech|
|Written by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno|
|Monday, 03 March 2008 15:37|
It is a dangerous time for those who report the truth. From 1992 to 2008, 679 journalists have been killed worldwide. The Philippines has the 5th highest number of incidents where journalists have been murdered.
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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 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.
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.
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.
The Rule on the Writ of Amparo which protects the victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances took effect last Oct. 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 Feb. 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."
Libel and cap on civil liability
On protecting the freedom of the press, the High Court, through 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.
On Feb. 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.
Search for truth
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.
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.
Speech is the function of the press. Speech plus the action of the sovereign people: Let them converge for they will lead us to the doorstep of truth.