Live TV-radio coverage, first time ever

Finally and at last, the Supreme Court allowed, in a resolution dated June 14, 2011, the live TV-radio coverage of a criminal case. Though subject to several conditions and though applicable pro hac vice (this time only) to the multiple murder case of Maguindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan Jr. et al., this resolution marks the first time that the highest court has authorized the live broadcast of a courtroom drama.

Absolute ban. In the past, the Court uniformly prohibited such media access. Thus, on Oct. 22, 1991, the Court unanimously denied the live coverage of the libel case filed by then President Cory Aquino. As authority, it cited the US Supreme Court decision in “Estes v. Texas” (decided by a close 5-4 vote) forbidding television cameras in criminal trials.

The ban was reiterated 10 years later in a resolution, dated June 29, 2001 penned by Justice Jose C. Vitug, in the plunder case filed against President Joseph Estrada. Voting 8-6 with one justice on leave, the Court flatly denied the live TV-radio coverage of this sensational case. Later, acting on a motion for reconsideration and after Estrada offered no objections, the tribunal in a resolution dated Sept. 13, 2001, relaxed the ban and allowed cameras but only for documentary purposes, not live, real-time broadcast.

The Court banned live coverage mainly because of “the prejudice it poses (1) to the defendant’s right to due process and (2) to the fair and orderly administration of justice”; while stressing, on the other hand, that “the right of the people to information may be served and satisfied by less distracting, degrading and prejudicial means.”

My dissent. The Estrada resolution was issued when I was still a sitting justice. I joined the minority in opposing the total ban imposed by the majority of eight. My dissent explained, “Everyone has a right to attend and witness a trial or hearing, especially if criminal in nature, under the constitutional principles of transparency, and of free, open and public hearing of cases. However, given the limitation of time and space in a courtroom, it is not always possible to physically accommodate all persons interested in witnessing a court hearing.”

Thus, I proposed the installation of “a single fixed camera under the control of the court (that) could catch, live, the incidents in the trial. The audio-visual output of the camera could be flashed on big, wide TV monitors or projection screens inside and outside the courtroom. This will also enable the TV and radio crews outside the courtroom to beam the output to their respective stations for broadcasting to the public, without the ubiquitous and intimidating wiring, lights or media cameras inside the courthouse.”

“The cameras,” I added, “will be placed in the rear of the courtroom and its positions shall be locked to wide-angle, so that only a stationary audience view is attained. There will be no other cameras, lights or other media equipment, which can cause nervousness or anxiety to witnesses, lawyers and other personalities directly involved in a judicial trial. Needless to state, this method will prevent editorializing or sensationalism, which the Court in 1991 feared. In this manner, there will be no unwelcome camera focusing, probing, angling, panning or other kinds of manipulation.”

First time ever. After another 10 years from the Estrada decision comes the present unanimous Resolution, written by Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, granting pro hac vice the live broadcast of the Ampatuan multiple murder case. The Court stressed that unlike the Aquino and Estrada cases, the “Maguindanao Massacre” involves the “impossibility of accommodating even the parties to the case—the private complainants/families of the victims and other witnesses—inside the courtroom.”

Said the Court, “the families of the 57 victims and of the 197 accused have as much interest, beyond mere curiosity, to attend and monitor the proceedings as those of the impleaded parties or trial participants” not to mention that “the prosecution and defense have listed more than 200 witnesses each.” As they cannot all be physically accommodated in the limited space of a courthouse, “technology… is the only solution… to satisfy the imperative of a transparent, open and public trial.”

To maintain decorum and to safeguard the rights of the accused from the intrusive presence of several media cameras, the Court issued several guidelines, the most important of which are (1) “a single fixed compact camera shall be installed inconspicuously inside the courtroom to provide a single wide-angle full view of the sala of the courtroom… with a limited number of microphones,” (2) media companies may be interconnected with this single camera “with the least physical disturbance,” (3) “broadcasting… for a particular day must be continuous and in its entirety…with no commercial breaks… except during recess… without any voice over… annotations shall observe the sub judice rule… ”

The third item is quite stringent. TV time is very expensive. Requiring continuous coverage in the entirety of a trial without any commercial break may be a dampener. But still and all, I welcome this resolution. It recognizes the view articulated in my dissent that “it is now technologically feasible to give our people in their homes and offices the same access to trials as the spectators inside the courthouse” without transgressing the rights of the accused and the dignity of the trial court.

* * *

Leave a comment

Filed under Columns

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s