Seares: Why law on campus press freedom has not worked and may never work

Related Media’s Public column: Is campus press less free than professional media? (April 21, 2018)

THE Campus Journalism Act (CJA) of 1991 just turned 27 years old about two weeks ago. What has its old age, almost three decades, shown?

The law, signed by then president Corazon Aquino last July 5, 1991, appears to have failed in its mission, contained in the law’s preamble: “It is the policy of the state to uphold freedom of the press, even at campus level.”

The matter of press freedom though may have obscured the more important goal: to hone the skill of student writers for whatever work that needs lucid thinking and verbalizing when they become adults.

‘Roar’ suppressed

Last April, the San Beda Senior High School publication “The Bedan Roar” was prevented from circulating 1,700 copies of its issue that contained articles about President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs and the proliferation of fake news. School officials considered the content “too critical and too negative for the community of San Beda.”

Similar incidents of repression, including outright shutdown of publications, must have happened in other campuses. They, however, are generally unreported in mainstream media. If they appeared in internet news sites, they were not interesting enough to draw much attention.

The story of “The Bedan Roar” though spilled over to traditional media mainly because it was used by detained senator Leila de Lima as basis for filing last July 15 Senate Bill #1868, which seeks to repeal and replace the CJA or Republic Act #7079.

Alleged repression

In filing the bill. De Lima noted that “harassment and intimidation” from their own schools have been unleashed against school papers “that oppose or are critical of school programs and policies.” Except for the incident at San Beda, where President Duterte finished his law, de Lima had no other example. She may not get anything else: no data are available on the repression that she alleges.

Students in most schools don’t have the activism of those in state colleges like U.P. Diliman or private colleges like Ateneo de Manila. But even where campus journalists assert their independence, they are not without problems. In May 2007, “Philippine Collegian” editors tangled with U.P. officials on funds for their “Kule.”

Flaws of the law

In an earlier article, I cited the defects of CJA of 1991. The problem of funding tops the list. The school collects money for the paper and controls spending. The power of the purse is inevitably linked to the power to control. Not unique to school owners. Publishers of newspapers hold the same view: it’s their paper; they decide on what will be in it.

That, plus these: “independence” is not defined by CJA, a problem raised by Ateneo de Manila’s “The Guidon” in 2010. The power of the adviser or moderator is not clear. He is just supposed to guide or keep the young writers in check. But he answers to the school whenever anything “negative” comes out in the paper. Often he becomes more protective of school interest than necessary.

The de Lima bill reportedly offers such solutions as control of publication funds by the students and “in-depth training.” But specifics are not yet known. SB #1868 still had to be posted by the Senate website as of this writing. It’s not yet known if her bill adequately defines the freedom it grants.

‘Do they need it?’

Defining “independence” of the student paper must start with delineating boundaries of its freedom. There are limits to what they can write. Professional media submit to curbs set by the law and the publisher. Campus writers and editors cannot be freer than practicing journalists.

The need for some restraint is more compelling in schools. Student writers are mostly novices in complying with the law and norms of journalism. The weapon they wield may inflict more damage, given the lack of training and experience.

The clash often comes (a) when student journalists quarrel with school officials on policies and practices, and (b) when the paper goes beyond the campus and tackles national issues, as the “Bedan Roar” did. The CJA has no measure to deal with such problems.

Practical review

The CJA may yet be revised. Highly unlikely for the de Lima bill to move further, given her inability to attend Senate sessions and other more urgent concerns of Congress this year and the next. But when the time comes to review and revise the campus journalism law, a more practical approach to the issue will be helpful.

The situation in private media will give some perspective in the grant of campus press freedom. School owners would never tolerate the campus organ to criticize school administration policies and practices. Owners of newspapers and broadcast stations similarly loathe the idea of being attacked by the weapon they help fund and control.

Shift from trees

And yes, that review may include the shift from paper to digital. It would cost less and save a lot of forest trees -- and would be more accessible on gadgets most students already use. But the issue on press freedom would not easily go away: trust the young that it would not.


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