Is there press freedom in the Philippines? In a nutshell, we shall discuss this in this article. The year 2020 was a blast. It started with the Australian wildfire that affected thousands of families and wild animals. Then, here comes the eruption of the Taal volcano, the death of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, and the biggest threat to the world, the Coronavirus.1
We are all made aware of these events in a wink of an eye, thanks to the media broadcasters who continuously covered these incidents. However, the media’s position may not have been on the icing of a cake on that period. The year also has marked the supposed two significant setbacks on press freedom, many believe.
First has been the shutting down of one of the biggest broadcasters in the Philippines, ABS-CBN.2 Most of the Duterte administration’s critics found this untimely. They asked. Why shut down a company that is feeding the families of a rough estimate of 11,000 employees during the height of the pandemic? Inevitably, the tickling idea arose that this is a heavy blow against press freedom.
Since the beginning of former President Duterte’s term, ABS-CBN is quite rampant in covering the news that seems to be an attack against his infamous war on drugs.3 Many insist that this is the reason why the media company was shut down and not because of the alleged violations.
The next one is the Decision of the court in the cyber-liber case against the CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa. Just like ABS-CBN, Rappler had released some news exposing the casualties of the administration’s war on drugs, abuse of human rights, and the former President’s alleged misogynistic acts.4
Because of this, many media watchdogs and organizations claimed that the former Duterte administration is killing press freedom.5 So, what is press freedom? What does our Constitution talk about it?
Under Article 3, Section 4 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, “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.”6 To better understand what is being contemplated in this Section. Let us look at some of the decided cases of the Supreme Court.
Is there press freedom in the Philippines?
There still is. In the case of Chavez vs. Gonzales,7 the Court stated that;
“At the very least, free speech and free press may be identified with the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully any matter of public interest without censorship and punishment. There is to be no previous restraint on the communication of views or subsequent liability whether in libel suits, prosecution for sedition, action for damages, or contempt proceedings unless there is a clear and present danger of substantive evil that Congress has a right to prevent.”8
In In Re: Emil Jurado,9 the Court cited that in the case of Zaldivar vs. Gonzales,10 “the importance both of the constitutional guarantee of free speech and the reality that there are fundamental and equally important public interests which need on occasion to be balanced against and accommodated with one and the other. The Court stressed the importance of the public interest in the maintenance of the integrity and orderly functioning of the administration of justice.11
“That 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.12
“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 that are accepted by the general community.”13
With the abovementioned cases, we can say that the Constitution gives the utmost importance to the freedom of speech and press. The Constitution sees it as a great tool to avoid the abuse of authority or power of those in the position. This is a great opportunity to inform the citizen about the information that they need to know.
Freedom of Speech not absolute
However, it is also clear that even though it seats higher than other substantive rights, the freedom of speech and press is not absolute. When there is a pressing public interest or such great evil needs to be prevented, the State can actually restrain the said Constitutional guarantee.
Reverting back to the case of Chavez vs. Gonzales,14 the Court mentioned that to determine if the freedom of speech and expression can be restrained, they usually resort to the Clear and Present Danger Rule.
The said rule rests on the premise that speech may be restrained because there is a substantial danger that the words uttered will likely lead to an evil the government has a right to prevent. This rule requires that the evil consequences sought to be prevented must be substantive, “extremely serious, and the degree of imminence extremely high.”15
Likewise, in Philippine jurisprudence, there are four (4) aspects of freedom of the press:
Freedom from prior restraint is freedom from government censorship of publications, whatever the form of censorship, and regardless of whether it is wielded by the executive, legislative or judicial branch of the government.
Freedom from punishment subsequent to publication precludes liability for completed publications of views traditionally held innocent. Otherwise, the prohibition on prior restraint would be meaningless, as the unrestrained threat of subsequent punishment, by itself, would be an effective prior restraint.
Thus, opinions on public issues cannot be punished when published, merely because the opinions are novel or controversial, or because they clash with current doctrines. This fact does not imply that publishers and editors are never liable for what they print. Such freedom gives no immunity from laws punishing scandalous or obscene matter, seditious or disloyal writings, and libelous or insulting words.
Freedom of access to information regarding matters of public interest is kept real in several ways. Official papers, reports, and documents, unless held confidential and secret by a competent authority in the public interest, are public records.
Freedom of circulation refers to the unhampered distribution of newspapers and other media among customers and among the general public.
We can also presume that the State can actually prosecute somebody if what has been published is malicious, defamatory in nature, destructive of honor of any person, or libelous in nature. The Revised Penal Code (RPC) defined libel as:
“A public and 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.”16
The RPC also provides for the criminal liability of those who will be found guilty of libel or oral defamation under Articles 355 and 358.
In Fermin vs. People of the Philippines,17 the Court ruled that:
“Neither can petitioner take refuge in the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press. Although a wide latitude is given to critical utterances made against public officials in the performance of their official duties, or against public figures on matters of public interest, such criticism does not automatically fall within the ambit of constitutionally protected speech.18
“If the utterances are false, malicious, unrelated to a public officer’s performance of his duties, or irrelevant to matters of public interest involving public figures, the same may give rise to criminal and civil liability.19
“While complainants are considered public figures for being personalities in the entertainment business, media people, including gossip and intrigue writers and commentators such as petitioners, do not have the unbridled license to malign their honor and dignity by indiscriminately airing fabricated and malicious comments, whether in broadcast media or in print, about their personal lives’ media practitioners of the high ethical standards attached to and demanded by their noble profession.20
The Court also reiterated that:
“The danger of an unbridled irrational exercise of the right of free speech and press, that is, in utter contempt of the rights of others and in willful disregard of the cumbrous responsibilities inherent in it, is the eventual self-destruction of the right and the regression of human society into a veritable Hobbesian state of nature where life is short, nasty and brutish.21
“Therefore, to recognize that there can be no absolute “unrestraint” in speech is to truly comprehend the quintessence of freedom in the marketplace of social thought and action, genuine freedom being that which is limned by the freedom of others.22
If there is freedom of the press, ought there not also be freedom from the press? It is in this sense that self-regulation, as distinguished from self-censorship, becomes the ideal mean for, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter has warned:23
“Without a lively sense of responsibility, a free press may readily become a powerful instrument of injustice. Lest we be misconstrued, this is not to diminish nor constrict that space in which expression freely flourishes and operates.24
For we have always strongly maintained, as we do now, that freedom of expression is man’s birthright – constitutionally protected and guaranteed, and that it has become the singular role of the press to act as its “defensor fidei” in a democratic society such as ours.25
But it is also worth keeping in mind that the press is the servant, not the master, of the citizenry, and its freedom does not carry with it an unrestricted hunting license to prey on the ordinary citizen.”26
In the case of Tulfo vs. People of the Philippines,27 the Court mentioned that:
“Freedom of speech and of the press is a hard-fought right dating as far back as the Spanish regime. At that time, censorship had been legitimate, and such liberties were not only recurrent demands of propagandists but leading causes for revolution.28
“Freedom of the press rests its philosophical basis within the larger scope of the right to free discussion and expression. Freedom of the press “is the sharpest weapon in the fight to keep government responsible and efficient. Without a vigilant press, the mistakes of every administration would go uncorrected and its abuses unexposed.”29
“However, the freedoms of speech and of the press are not absolute but subject to certain restrictions, such as laws against libel. The recognition of libel as a limitation is rooted in one’s right to protect their reputation from malicious attacks. “The right of a person to public esteem is as much a constitutional right as the possession of life, liberty or property.”30
Nonetheless, we must also remember that there are privileged communications that are also being protected by the Constitution. In Borjal vs. Court of Appeals,31 the Court explained that:
“Absolutely privileged communications are those which are not actionable even if the author has acted in bad faith. An example is found in the 1987 Constitution which exempts a member of Congress from liability for any speech or debate in Congress or in any committee thereof. On the other hand, qualifiedly privileged communications containing defamatory imputations are not actionable unless found to have been made without good intention and justifiable motive.32
“The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable.33
“In order for it to be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.”34
To sum it up, the freedom of speech and press is an important right that the State must uphold. We discovered that when the State aims to restrain the said Constitutional guarantee, Courts automatically struck the restrain unless the government can overturn this by a clear and present danger.
Likewise, the freedom of the press is a right to be enjoyed by our media broadcasters without the fear of being prosecuted. However, those who will abuse this right and who will publish libelous articles or speak defamatory words against any person should be prosecuted as this is not an absolute right.
- A heat advisory in effect for 26 regions in the area
- Philippine Congress Officially Shuts Down Leading Broadcaster
- ABS-CBN: Philippines’ biggest broadcaster forced off air
- Maria Ressa: The celebrated Philippine news boss enraging Duterte
- Maria Ressa: Philippine journalist found guilty of cyber libel
- Section 4 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution
- G.R. No. 168338, February 15, 2008
- A.M. 93-2-037 SC, April 6, 1995
- G.R. Nos. 79690-707, October 7, 1988
- Supra., G.R. No. 168338, February 15, 2008
- Article 353, Revised Penal Code
- G.R. No. 157643, March 28, 2008
- GR. No. 187113, January 11, 2021
- G.R. No. 126466 January 14, 1999