By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
posted 20-Nov-2015  ·  
4,461 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

Now that the recurring circus called elections is again here, the width and breadth of the freedom of expression and of the press again comes into focus. The right of speech and of the press is among the most zealously protected rights in the Constitution. Thus, the Bill of Rights provides: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” (Article III, Sec. 4, Constitution of the Philippines). But every person exercising it is, as the Civil Code stresses, obliged "to act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith." This is the norm for the proper exercise of any right, constitutional or otherwise. The constitutional right of freedom of expression may not be availed of to broadcast lies or half-truths -- this would not be "to observe honesty and good faith;" it may not be used to insult others, destroy their name or reputation or bring them into disrepute -- this would not be "to act with justice" or "give everyone his due."

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The said provision in the Civil Code is reflective of the universally accepted precept of "abuse of rights," one of the most dominant principles which must be deemed always implied in any system of law.  It parallels too "the supreme norms of justice which the law develops" and which are expressed in three familiar Latin maxims: honeste vivere, alterum non laedere and jus suum quique tribuere (to live honorably, not to injure others, and to render to every man his due). In this jurisdiction, it is established that freedom of the press is crucial and so inextricably woven into the right to free speech and free expression, that any attempt to restrict it must be met with an examination so critical that only a danger that is clear and present would be allowed to curtail it. Indeed, the Philippine Supreme Court has not wavered in the duty to uphold this cherished freedom. It has struck down laws and issuances meant to curtail this right, as in Adiong v. COMELEC, Burgos v. Chief of Staff, Social Weather Stations v. COMELEC, and Bayan v. Executive Secretary Ermita. When on its face, it is clear that a governmental act is nothing more than a naked means to prevent the free exercise of speech, it must be nullified.

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Freedom of speech and of expression, like all constitutional freedoms, is not absolute and that freedom of expression needs on occasion to be adjusted to and accommodated with the requirements of equally important public interests. One of these fundamental public interests is the maintenance of the integrity and orderly functioning of the administration of justice. There is no antinomy between free expression and the integrity of the system of administering justice. For the protection and maintenance of freedom of expression itself can be secured only within the context of a functioning and orderly system of dispensing justice, within the context, in other words, of viable independent institutions for delivery of justice which are accepted by the general community. As Mr. Justice Frankfurter put it: “xxx A free press is not to be preferred to an independent judiciary, nor an independent judiciary to a free press. Neither has primacy over the other; both are indispensable to a free society. The freedom of the press in itself presupposes an independent judiciary through which that freedom may, if necessary, be vindicated. And one of the potent means for assuring judges their independence is a free press.”

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Mr. Justice Malcolm of the Philippine Supreme Court expressed the same thought in the following terms: “The Organic Act wisely guarantees freedom of speech and press. This constitutional right must be protected in its fullest extent. The Court has heretofore given evidence its tolerant regard for charges under the Libel Law which come dangerously close to its violation. We shall continue in this chosen path. The liberty of the citizens must be preserved in all of its completeness. But license or abuse of liberty of the press and of the citizens should not be confused with liberty in its true sense. As important as is the maintenance of an unmuzzled press and the free exercise of the rights of the citizens is the maintenance of the independence of the Judiciary. Respect for the Judiciary cannot be had if persons are privileged to scorn a resolution of the court adopted for good purposes, and if such persons are to be permitted by subterranean means to diffuse inaccurate accounts of confidential proceedings to the embarrassment of the parties and the court.”

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Clearly, the public interest involved in freedom of speech and the individual interest of public officials (and for that matter, all persons, public or private) in the maintenance of private honor and reputation need to be accommodated one to the other. And the point of adjustment or accommodation between these two legitimate interests is precisely found in the norm which requires those who, invoking freedom of speech, publish statements which are clearly defamatory to identifiable public officials to exercise bona fide care in ascertaining the truth of the statements they publish. The norm does not require that a journalist guarantee the truth of what he says or publishes. But the norm does prohibit the reckless disregard of private reputation by publishing or circulating defamatory statements without any bona fide effort to ascertain the truth thereof. That this norm represents the generally accepted point of balance or adjustment between the two interests involved is clear from a consideration of both the pertinent civil law norms and the Code of Ethics adopted by the journalism profession in the Philippines. The freedom of the press is one of the cherished hallmarks of our democracy; but even as the fourth estate is respected and protected, the freedom it enjoys must be balanced with responsibility. There is a fine line between freedom of expression and libel, and it falls on the courts to determine whether or not that line has been crossed.

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