Supreme Court-media relation

LAST SUNDAY, I WROTE ON THE CONGRESSIONAL proposals to decriminalize libel and how the Supreme Court has protected media’s freedom of expression in relation to libel. I said that the Court appreciated the difficult plight of journalists when powerful officials use the police and the prosecutory arm of the government to harass and intimidate them.

Criticism without venom. Indeed, the Court winces when media professionals are unnecessarily arrested and handcuffed publicly, fingerprinted and photographed like common criminals, detained until they put up bail, and required to attend protracted hearings before prosecutors and judges who are sometimes rude and inconsiderate. And worse, when they become victims of unexplained disappearances and extra-legal killings.

In turn, media have generally been kind to the Court. Journalists criticize only after a careful review of the relevant facts and after double-checking their sources of information. Many of them realize that, when subjected to unwarranted attacks, the judicial institution may be permanently damaged and judicial integrity hopelessly undermined.

Verily, the judiciary and the media are natural partners. They are bound by the same reasons for being — the search for truth, the protection of the people’s rights and the defense of the basic norms of society. Since both do not have direct access to government resources, or to the police and the military, they rely only on the persuasive power of reason and the core values of organized society.

Live TV coverage. The cordial relation between the judiciary and the media has not ruled out occasional face-offs. One recurring conflict started on Oct. 23, 1991 when the Court issued a resolution prohibiting live radio and television coverage of court proceedings. The controversy was revived 10 years later when then Secretary of Justice Hernando Perez asked for live coverage of the Sandiganbayan trial of former President Joseph Estrada.

By a close 8-6 vote, the Court denied the petition (“Perez vs Estrada,” June 29, 2001). (I voted with the six.) Weighing the conflicting rights to information of the public and the right to a fair trial of the accused, the Court held that “the right of the accused must be preferred.” It explained that live coverage of the prosecution’s evidence would tend to create undue prejudice to Estrada.

Later, when his turn to present his side came up, Estrada himself asked for live coverage. However, the Court rejected his request. Sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Nonetheless, the Court relaxed the ban on Sep. 11, 2007 when it allowed, under certain conditions, the live coverage of the promulgation of the Sandiganbayan decision. Note, however, that the ban on live coverage of trials was not lifted and continues to be observed in all courts.

SAL controversy. During my press conference as chief justice on Dec. 22, 2005, the reporters asked me to release the Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL) of the Supreme Court justices. I replied that I was barred from so doing by two en banc resolutions issued on May 2, 1989 and Sep. 22, 1992, prior to my entry to the Court. If they disagreed with the conditions imposed therein, I advised them to file a formal petition showing why the resolutions should be reversed or modified. To date however, no such petition has, to my knowledge, been filed.

Another media critique of the men and women in robes is found in the December 2007/February 2008 issue of Newsbreak magazine, which featured Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno on its glossy cover and several stories about the judiciary in 28 pages of investigative reporting. The articles ranged from the alleged desire of the Chief Justice to “remake himself” and “win in the court of public opinion” to the alleged “use of political connections and the lack of rigor in the selection process” of new justices. The criticisms still hang, as the Court has not responded to them.

On April 17, 2008, the Newsbreak team reported, this time digitally in, that Chief Justice Puno was allegedly planning to retire early due to his disappointment with the Court’s 9-6 decision in “Neri vs Senate Committee on Accountability” and “as part of a term-sharing agreement with Senior Justice Leonardo Quisumbing.” CJ Puno promptly issued a denial, stressing he would continue “to discharge (his) duties with independence and fairness” till his mandatory retirement on May 17, 2010.

Face-off on executive privilege. The most serious new face-off is the vehement media reaction against the majority decision in the Neri case on executive privilege. Most newspapers and broadcast networks were appalled by what they perceived as the suppression of truth, and the inexplicable subordination of transparency and accountability to contortive legalism.

Especially abhorred are the baffling reversals of old doctrines without sufficient justifications. Media become agitated when precedents are unexpectedly reversed or modified. Doctrines should be changed only for the best of reasons that are satisfactorily explained.

The judiciary and the media have been great partners in promoting the public weal. Having been a member of the Supreme Court, and now of the media, I trust that these occasional conflicts will not degenerate to a total locking of horns. In fact, it is my hope that these differences will sharpen their cooperation, in the same way that occasional disagreements strengthen the bonds of husbands and wives.

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