CEBU

Seares: Amendment to Sotto Law expands protection, keeps problem areas

HOW much has the Sotto Law, a.k.a. Press Freedom Law, been expanded by its new amendment?

So much that the protection against being compelled to disclose a journalist’s source of news or information now shields almost anyone who works with media.

The Sotto Law is Republic Act (RA) 53, approved in October 1946. It was first amended last June 15, 1956, which changed the exception to non-disclosure. A journalist may be compelled by a court or a committee of Congress to reveal the source of the published news or information, given him in confidence, if it is demanded by “the security of the state.” Before it was “the interest of the state.”

New amendment

The second and latest amendment is contained in RA 11458, signed by President Duterte last Aug. 30, 2019, but released only last Tuesday, Sept. 24.

The shield law used to protect only print journalists. It took 73 years for the gate to widen and include broadcast and electronic journalists–and almost everyone else involved in gathering, reviewing and producing the news.

All-embracing

The new amendment’s all-embracing clause is this part of Section 1 of RA 11458, thus:

“... media practitioner involved in writing, editing, production and dissemination of news for mass circulation.”

Almost everybody is in, with the immediately preceding inclusive line that is a part of this list: “any publisher, owner, or duly recognized or accredited journalist, writer, reporter, contributor, opinion writer, editor, columnist, manager...”

And the listing of media outlets is as wide as can be, thus: “any print, broadcast, wire service organization, or electronic mass media, including cable TV and its variants.”

Related in confidence

The person seeking protection under the Sotto Law “cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news item, report or information appearing or being reported or disseminated through said media, which was related to him in confidence.”

And the sole exception is when “the court or any committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.”

The key phrases are “related in confidence” and “security of the state.” To seek protection under the law, the seeker must have obtained the news or information under condition of anonymity. To unlock the secret, a court or congressional committee must decide that the security of the state demands the disclosure.

Problem areas

Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), which helped in the drafting of the bill by submitting recommendations to Rep. Raul V. Del Mar, principal author in the House, anticipated the areas where dispute may arise :

n Determining who is “duly accredited” or “recognized”: That will raise some problem if the “journalist, writer, reporter, contributor, opinion writer, columnist” or any of the others covered by the law does not belong to or work for any media outlet. Such as bloggers, social media writers and others who don’t have an editor, manager, supervisor, director or administrator. Who will “duly recognize or accredit” him or her?

n Determining whether the “security of the State” demands disclosure. The Supreme Court in December 1948 ordered a news reporter Angel Parazo to disclose the source of his story on alleged leakage of some subjects in the bar exams that year, ruling that the integrity of the tests qualified as “interest of the state.” The exemption has since been changed to “security of the state” but even the interpretation of that could still be a source of friction and cause of litigation. Would a Senate or House committee not insist on how it sees the withheld information? To many legislators, anything that affects their interest affects the security of the state.

Difficulties compensated

Overall though, the del Mar amendment on the Sotto Law l has been welcomed by media sectors, especially those who had been shut out before, such as radio and TV journalists.

Difficulties from possible conflict, notably those involving people who write or otherwise engage in the new media, are being compensated by the removal of the serious seven-decades-old discrimination against journalists who are not with print.

A senator, Grace Poe, sees the amendment as one way of ferreting out people and outlets that peddle false news and information. She is being optimistic. Such peddlers, nameless or fictitious, wouldn’t bother to seek refuge behind the Sotto Law.


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