Live coverage and the rights of the accused

As expected, the Supreme Court resolution (dated Oct. 23, 2012, but known publicly only last week) “disallowing the live media broadcast” of the Maguindanao massacre trials and allowing only the “audio visual recording and streaming of the video coverage … both (1) for documentary purposes and (2) for transmittal to specified viewing areas: (i) outside the courtroom, within the Camp Bagong Diwa premises; and (ii) selected trial courts in Maguindanao, Koronadal, South Cotabato, and General Santos City where relatives of the accused and the victims reside” generated a maelstrom of controversy.

Earlier ruling modified. To be precise, the resolution modified an earlier one issued on June 14, 2011, which allowed “pro hac  vice” the live TV and radio broadcast of this “trial of the decade,” subject to strict guidelines, among them:

• “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 trial court. No panning and zooming shall be allowed to avoid highlighting or downplaying incidents in the proceedings…

• “The broadcasting of the proceedings for a particular day must be continuous and in its entirety … [with] no commercial break or any other gap…

• “To avoid overriding or superimposing the audio output from the ongoing proceedings, the proceedings shall be broadcast without any voice-overs, except brief annotations or scenes depicted therein as may be necessary to explain them at the start and end of the scene…”

These guidelines were issued pro  hac  vice, meaning for “this instance only,” and will not apply as a precedent to future cases, because of the unusual circumstances in the Maguindanao massacre in which there are 57 families of victims, 197 accused, 20 sets of lawyers, 200 witnesses for the prosecution, and another 200 for the defense. Since they could not be accommodated in the courtroom, the Supreme Court allowed live broadcast to enable them to monitor the case.

Aquino and Estrada cases. Historically, the Supreme Court had always disallowed live TV and radio coverage of trials. On Oct. 22, 1991, in the libel case filed by President Cory Aquino against Luis Beltran, the Court held:

“Considering the prejudice it poses to the defendant’s rights to due process as well as to the fair and orderly administration of justice, and considering further that the freedom of the press and the right of the people to information may be served and satisfied by less distracting, degrading and prejudicial means, live radio and television coverage of court proceedings shall not be allowed…”

Likewise, in the plunder trial of President Joseph Estrada, the high court a decade later, on June 29, 2001, ruled via an 8-6 vote that as between the constitutional rights of the accused to due process and the orderly administration of justice on the one hand, and the freedom of the press and right to public information of our people on the other, the balance should be weighed in favor of the accused.

However, in a subsequent resolution issued on Sept. 13, 2001, the Court in the same Estrada case “provided a glimmer of hope” when it ordered the installation of cameras inside the courtroom for “documentation purposes.” This resolution was obviously used as basis in allowing the  pro  hac  vice  live broadcast on June 14, 2011.

Mistrial and exclusion. However, the Court now modified this pro  hac  vice  ruling, fearing (1) that the accused could be acquitted on the ground of “mistrial” arising from the public pressure and media hype, and (2) the disqualification of many prosecution witnesses who have not been properly excluded from listening to earlier witnesses.

The Court reverted to the Cory Aquino libel ruling that “Witnesses might be frightened, play to the camera, or become nervous. They are subject to extraordinary out-of-court influences which might affect their testimony. Also, telecasting not only increases the trial judge’s responsibility to avoid actual prejudice to the defendant, it may as well affect his own performance. Judges are human beings also and are subject to the same psychological reactions as laymen. For the defendant, telecasting is a form of mental harassment and subjects him to excessive public exposure and distracts him from the effective presentation of his defense.”

The Court became extra careful in avoiding a mistrial that may ensue from the trial court’s witting or unwitting deprivation of the accused’s constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial, as a consequence of which they could be acquitted on appeal regardless of the evidence of their guilt.

My stand: As a sitting justice when the Estrada case was decided on June 29, 2001, I urged the use of “a single fixed camera under the control of the court… The audio-video output of the camera could be flashed on big, wide TV monitors or projection screens inside and outside the courtroom. This will also enable 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 and media cameras inside the courthouse.”

This single fixed camera allows the public the same view as spectators inside the courtroom; they can see and hear the unfolding proceedings without bothering the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses and the parties. I think technology can widen the reach of the right to information without affecting the litigants’ rights.

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