Hail to the Court; a toast to truth

HAIL TO THE PUNO COURT FOR CHAMPIONING press freedom. By stopping the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) from canceling the operating permits of radio and television stations that air the so-called “Hello Garci tapes,” the Supreme Court has again lived up to its long-held reputation as the bastion of liberty.

Prior restraint. In precise, crystal-clear language, the decision—written by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno—labeled the NTC threat as “an unconstitutional prior restraint — a naked means to prevent the free exercise of speech — a patent invasion of a constitutionally protected right.”

It justified its heady language with another vintage Puno prose, “A blow too soon struck for freedom is preferred than a blow too late.”

The Court reiterated jurisprudence, culled over the last 100 years, holding that “content-based” restrictions on free speech cannot be allowed, except under the “clear and present danger rule.” It held that the NTC miserably failed to prove this exception.

The Court further ruled that the airing of the damning conversation “allegedly between the President of the Philippines and a high-ranking official of the Commission on Elections — does not endanger national security? although it may cause “adverse effect on a person’s private comfort.”

May I add that the duty of the judiciary is not to soothe private discomfort but to uphold the Bill of Rights. Imagine the havoc the NTC would have inflicted on us had the Court allowed it to cancel the licenses of radio and television networks that aired the controversial discs. No self-respecting and independent broadcast station would be spared and our people would have been left to the mercies of media outlets spouting only government propaganda.

Apart from the immediate euphoria it generated, the decision should be compulsory reading for lawyers and journalists alike, because of its scholarly dissertation on media freedom. Adding illumination are the concurring opinions. Relish for instance Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez’s timely invocation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and her singular citation of Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin (whom I invited to our country when I was chief justice). Enjoy also Justice Antonio Carpio’s view that NTC does not have any “content-based censorship power.”

So too, read the separate/dissenting opinions of Justices Dante O. Tinga, Minita V. Chico-Nazario, Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. and Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura, because they point out some food for thought (mentioned also in the majority opinions) that only a private citizen—Francisco I. Chavez, not a media personality—complained of the NTC threat. Worse, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas issued a “Joint Press Statement” that the “NTC respects and will not hinder freedom of the press.”

The moral lesson: media must be more careful in agreeing with constitutionally infirm “guidelines, standards, parameters, or joint statements” that could later be used as legal traps by the government. The parameters are already set by the Constitution. There is no need for any other “guidelines.”

A toast for the nuncio. The media reported extensively on the cocktail party of “The Firm” last Feb. 11. Noticeably absent, however, was Justice Carpio, the erstwhile head of Carpio Villaraza and Cruz, now re-christened Villaraza Cruz Marcelo and Angangco. Why was he absent? “When I joined the Supreme Court, I severed my ties with The Firm. Besides, I do not go to socials of lawyers,” explained Justice Carpio.

Instead, he attended a reception I hosted at home on the same evening in honor of the new apostolic nuncio, Edward Joseph Adams. Ambassador Adams occupies a pivotal position here. He is not only the dean (titular head) of the diplomatic corps and the envoy of the Vatican state, but also the representative of the Pope as the religious head of the universal Church. I introduced him during the reception as the “messenger of truth.” A toast for him is a toast for truth.

The nuncio exercises more than just moral authority over the Philippine Church; among other things, he screens and recommends to the Holy See new bishops of the Philippines. I have been a witness to some important events shaped by past nuncios.

Gracing the reception as special guest was Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto G. Romulo. As proof of their esteem for their new dean, almost the entire diplomatic corps was present, including Ambassadors Tony Hely (Australia), Robert Desjardins (Canada), Salwa Moufid (Egypt), Alistair MacDonald (European Union), Gerard Chesnel (France), Christian-Luowig Weber-Lortsch (Germany), Rajeet Mitter (India), Rubens Anna Fedele (Italy), Makoto Katsura (Japan), Hong Jong-Ki (Korea), Vitaliy Vorobiev (Russia), Mohammed Wali (Saudi Arabia), Luis Arias (Spain), Peter Beckingham (United Kingdom) and Nileema Noble (UNDP). Sorely missed were Ambassadors Kristie Kenney (United States) and Song Tao (China), who both had previous engagements.

Francisco Ortigas, dean of the consular corps, as well as some prime business movers, like Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Oscar Lopez, John Gokongwei Jr., Alfredo Yao, ADB President Haruhiko Kuroda, Inquirer Chair Marixi Prieto and Inquirer President Sandy Prieto-Romualdez were likewise present.

Incidentally, Feb. 11, 2008 also marked my first year as a column writer. Originally invited to write three times a week, I thought however that writing every Sunday was all I was qualified to do.

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