Thursday, August 05, 2021

Seares: Is campus press less free than ‘pro’ media? Each has its limits.

[John Cavin M. Sabonsolin, a liberal arts teacher of Naval State University and working on his M.A. in media studies at USJ-R, raised the question to a number of working journalists.]

THE Campus Journalism Act (Republic Act 7079) declares that it is the policy of the state “to uphold and protect the freedom of the press even in the campus level.” Note the word “even.”

And the same 1991 law defines “student publication” as one “independently published by, and (which) meets the needs and interests of, the students.”

Yet campus press freedom is not as free as, and can’t be freer than, freedom of professional media. Despite difference in setting, each has limitations and restrictions.

Where law fails

R.A. #7079 or the CJA fails in its goals because (1) publication of at least one student publication by a school is not mandatory, (2) funding for the student paper depends largely on school owners, and (3) no effective rules guarantee independence of campus journalists. Some journalism teachers, such as U.P. Diliman’s Danilo Arao, even think the law perpetuates assaults on campus press freedom.

A school may shut down the student paper by withholding money or tightening its release. Only the school have authority and machinery to raise or collect funds for the paper’s operations. If the editorial board is hostile, the school simply shuts cuts off the flow of funds. Count the number of school papers that still publish.

A College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) study of 800 alleged violations of the law purportedly shows that 322 of them involved money: a tortuous process, as in the U.P. Collegian in 2006, or cutting off fees, as in the Polytechnic University of the Philippines at one time or another.

Advisory board, audit

The CJA pays tribute to independence of student journalists, yet requires an advisory board that effectively controls the paper. The board is supposed to give only “technical guidance” yet, as the CEGP study indicates, it easily includes censorship.

The law merely encourages the putting up of a student publication in the elementary, high school and college level. Not mandatory. Just as there’s no strict rule on use of publication fees.

Handling freedom

Critics of the student press ask: Can campus journalists handle the freedom?

One reason, they say, drafters of the CJA set up controls and Congress has overlooked its apparent defects for 17 years now, is this: they’re wary over capacity of the young writers to exercise their freedom. “Pro” journalists have editors and managers to review the product before publication. Yet, despite layers of oversight, major errors and still occur. How much more for campus writers with less experience and training and left on their own?

The law shows reluctance on autonomy by the young journalists. R.A.#7079 says standards and rules of the paper shall not contradict policy of the school administration.

Clash of interests

School administrations are understandably protective over its public image or brand. May a school paper report, say, a teacher’s habitual tardiness, students’ protest over classroom cheating, or a professor’s sale of grades?

The same conflict of interest -- duty to inform one’s public as against interest of the school -- parallels with clashes in regular media, when owner’s concerns collide with those of the paper’s public. A “pro” journalist hardly touches on issues against the paper’s advertisers or the owner’s relatives or friends in public office.

Reality in campus

The CJA declares the promise of press freedom but doesn’t provide for an effective mechanism. The law can be amended, not so much to make that promise a reality as to make that freedom jibe with the reality on the ground.

If campus journalists must be taught and honed on skills of communication, they need to be prepared for the reality out here: (1) freedom is limited by laws and ethical norms and (2) a journalist at times has to deal with compromises on his freedom.

2000 ruling restricts student journalists

Jasper Briones, editor-in-chief of “Chiro” and its magazine edition, was expelled while 10 other staffers were also dismissed or suspended for publishing an article and poems that the Miriam College community found “obscene, gross, pornographic.”

Investigated by the school’s disciplinary board, which led to the sanctions, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Miriam College Foundation vs. Court of Appeals, Jasper Briones et al (GR #127930 of Dec. 15, 2000), the high court ruled that the school can expel, suspend or otherwise punish the students.

Two reasons: 1. the school environment has “special characteristics”; 2. while Campus Journalism Act of 1991 prohibits expulsion or suspension of a student writer solely for his articles or his conduct in the school paper, the school can still sanction him if that “disrupts class work, involves disorder or invades the rights of others.”


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