A JOURNALIST can invoke the Sotto Law when compelled to reveal the source of his information on which he bases his news story. But the said law doesn’t give absolute protection against his liability, criminal or civil, if his story is found by the court to be offensive.

Otherwise, the Sotto Law would render inoperative other laws that protect citizens against slander and other scurrilous writing. That must not be the intent of lawmakers in crafting the 69-year-old law.

Marie Yuvienco, in an article posted on Interaksyon.com last June 19, contends that the Sotto Law “isn’t much of a shield” for journalists.

Qualifier

Under the law (Republic Act #53), enacted in 1946 and amended in 1956 (R.A. #1477), “the publisher, editor, columnist, or any accredited reporter of a newspaper, magazine or periodical cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any information or news report appearing in said publication which was related in confidence to such reporter, editor or publisher unless the court or committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the state.”

The said provision, however, is prefaced with this qualifier: “Without prejudice to his liability under civil and criminal laws.”

The Interaksyon article says that an “offending” journalist can be cited for contempt “under the law and applicable jurisprudence.” It cites In re Jurado, a 1956 case involving Emil Jurado, which “illustrates the illusory protection” offered by the Sotto Law.

Right, liability

In explaining its ruling, the Supreme Court said the journalists “cannot invoke such a right as a shield against liability for printing stories that are untrue or derogatory of the courts or others.” When called to account for what he wrote, the SC said, the journalist “has the option (a) to demonstrate their truthfulness or accuracy, even if in the process he discloses his source, or (b) to refuse that on the ground that to do so would require such disclosure.” If he refuses, the SC said, he “must be ready to accept the consequences of publishing untruthful or misleading stories the truth or inaccuracy of which he is unwilling or makes no bona fide effort to prove.”

The Sotto law is clear both in granting the journalist’s right not to be compelled to reveal the source and in declaring his accountability for a false story. Does the law give the right with one hand and take it away with the other?

No, it does not. It grants the right but does not remove the liability for offenses under other laws. That accountability is already established under penal and civil laws on offensive publication. The Sotto Law cannot be a total shield against everything the journalist writes about, including defamatory, contemptuous or seditious material as defined by the laws.

Law’s intent

The Sotto Law, we may recall, was intended to protect news sources so that they would be free to disclose wrongdoing, especially in government, and journalists’ information wells wouldn’t dry up. It was not meant though to encourage criminal or civilly-offensive content wrapped and shielded by secrecy about the source.

Editors frown on anonymous sources but at times, by neglect or design (allegedly to sell more papers and more advertising), they go on a limb and publish stories with no factual basis, merely stitched from speculation, rumor or half-truth. Should they get away with it by pointing to an unnamed source and seeking the law’s protection?

Not a magic wand

The options that the SC in the Jurado case gives journalists include “demonstration of the truth and accuracy of the report.” If the story was supported by facts other than what the unnamed source said -- verification being a basic trade tool -- the journalist should be able to prove, in the proper legal forum, that he didn’t whip it out of thin air. The source’s name must not be the sole magic wand that vanishes accountability altogether.

Absolute right to expose the truth assumes that everything that everyone publishes is true. What if it turns out to be false, spun by a source who expects the Sotto Law to shield him?

In the Jurado case, the columnist wrote about “hoodlums in robes,” a serious charge that would ruin unfairly, if it turned out to be a canard, judges’ reputation and judiciary’s credibility. If the press could assure absolute truth in its stories and columns, there would be no need for civil and criminal laws. But that sadly is not the situation. Media has its own share of mean guys, if not hoodlums with a computer or a mic.

The Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), a 13-year-old media watch group based in Cebu City, is among the voices that clamor for reforms in libel and contempt laws (especially on venue that harasses community journalists by dragging them to Manila to answer lawsuits filed by public officials who keep offices there).

Enough protection

CCPC though doesn’t want libel to be decriminalized. It seeks only the removal of imprisonment as penalty as it believes that those hurt by untrue and unjust writing (still rampant in some parts of the country) must keep the right to seek redress. Besides, lawyers tell us it’s less tough for the respondent or accused to defend a criminal charge instead of a civil suit.

The Sotto Law doesn’t give total protection, which a free but responsible press must not expect. But, expanded to include broadcast and online journalists, the law should offer enough protection for journalists’ sources.

The journalist can still refuse to name his source before the court or a congressional committee, except when it involves national security. But he must not rely solely on that right. He must still show, if sued or subpoenaed, that his story wasn’t reckless with the facts.

Complying with standards of good reporting should enhance Sotto Law’s protection. Besides, more dangerous or even lethal threats come from armed violence and repressive authorities, less from judges and lawmakers who want journalists to squeal on their sources.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]