Issue of July 5, 2020
     
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Nothing to do with press freedom

The conviction of Rappler Chief Executive Officer Maria Ressa for libel by the Regional Trial Court of Manila brings to life the oft debated topic of what draws the line between press freedom and malice. The line is very thin but it is very clear and well delineated.

Freedom of the press is a sacred constitutional right. If we are to cherish living in a meaningful democracy where people are at liberty to exchange ideas without fear of retribution, the freedom to disseminate information must be respected to the hilt. But to be free sets a duty to be responsible as well.

Press freedom does not give one a license to destroy the reputation of people. It is not a passport to indiscriminately ruin the lives of others.

People who write are like gunslingers. They can kill, not with bullets, but with words. They can cut deep into the hearts of human beings and slit their throats with defamation and shame. A gunslinger should not be set free in the middle of nowhere and be allowed to shoot indiscriminately. Without accountability for truth, they are as much, if not even more, dangerous than the wildest and most ferocious killers who are let loose to terrorize our communities. Hence, the need to temper those who abuse their freedom of expression.

Did the court overstep its authority and violate the right to free press and expression when it convicted Ressa? I do not think so.

The libel filed against Ressa was a criminal case initiated by a private individual who was slighted by a published report insinuating a defect and a vice against him. It had no political intonation into it. There are no party lines involved in it. It was a litigation initiated within the bounds of law by a person who had a grievance to redress and a reputation to protect. It was an offense that is well defined and penalized by law as libel.

The Revised Penal Code defines libel as “a malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

To be branded as a human trafficker is bad enough. To be called a drug lord is worse. What would one do if these monikers were labeled against him or her? Surely, any unfounded accusation must be vindicated before the proper forum. This is precisely what the accuser of Ressa did.

The complainant has filed a case to clear his name and in the process, sought that those who made the malicious imputation be punished in accordance with law.

If there is something political about the conviction, it did not emanate from the administration. Instead, it emanated from the accused.

Since no sympathy was forthcoming from the public or from the court, the conviction needs to be politicized in order to gain popular support. Thank God, people are not biting because it is obvious that there is nothing political about the case. There is no curtailment of press freedom. If there is, it properly falls within the exception.

In one case decided by the Supreme Court of the Philippines (Worcester vs. Ocampo, 22 Phil. 42), it gave the reason why libel is not violative of the freedom of expression and why it must be punished. It said: “The enjoyment of a private reputation is as much a constitutional right as the possession of life, liberty or property. It is one of those rights necessary to human society that underlie the whole scheme of civilization. The law recognized the value of such reputation and imposes upon him who attacks it, by slanderous words or libelous publication, the liability to make full compensation for the damage done.”

If the court rendered judgment against Ressa, it only applied the law. It did not cater to the whims and caprices of any political personality. In fact, there is no showing that the private complainant or the judge who decided the case or any of the witnesses, is in any way related to any public official who may have had an interest in the outcome of the case. To say that the decision is a violation of press freedom, is an affront to judicial independence.

The mandate of every journalist is to report the truth about information of public concern. This is called responsible journalism. Sometimes, the problem is the media does not report the news; it creates the news, thereby misleading its audience. When the only desire is to sensationalize and attract attention, common sense dictates that this is no longer within the realm of press freedom. It becomes criminal.

So, there you are. The trial and consequent conviction of Ressa has nothing to do with press freedom. If it has, it is a mere perception that is being instigated to satisfy the clamor of a minority who has every reason to despise the outcome of the case.

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