MEDIA is dubbed as the 4th estate. The watchdog that checks the government, institutions, and organizations for any abusive and illegal acts. It holds people in power accountable. Hence, its role in a democratic society is fundamental and essential.
Press freedom steams from the principle of freedom of expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and in international covenants. Free speech is protected and guaranteed in Article 3 Section 4 of the Bill of Rights -- 1987 Philippine Constitution, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).
However, like any other freedoms, FOE is not absolute. It is subject to certain regulations by the State to protect the rights of other individuals, the community, or the society. In essence, media practice is guided by two major principles: legal and ethical. It has many limitations such as Libel/Slander, Anti-Obscenity Law, Anti-Child Pornography Act, Invasion of Privacy Law, Law on National Security, Contempt of Court, Copyright Law, and Cybercrime Prevention Act.
Press freedom is also very prone to abuses and excesses like shooting from the hip, abuse of source-based stories, resorting to poetic license, imagined or manufactured stories, conflict of interest, misquotation, labeling, and “envelopmental” journalism. Any journalist should avoid these acts as they are deemed unethical. Thus, there is the Journalists’ Code of Ethics that serves as a self-regulating mechanism. However, not everything unethical is illegal. An act is illegal only when it is violative of the aforementioned laws (e.g. Libel), and it becomes punishable by law.
Meanwhile, the libel case against Maria Ressa is not yet final. It is still appealable in the Court of Appeals and in the Supreme Court. I will leave it to the experts to decide whether she is truly guilty or not. But to condemn the whole press, because of the alleged crime of one journalist, is unfair and unjust. This line of thinking is the result of the administration’s deliberate scheme of maligning and demonizing the media.
In fulfilling its function, media should be robust and government officials and public figures should not be onion-skinned especially when criticisms are of public interest. Time and time again, history has warned us of the abusive tendencies of the government that are directed to dissenters and critics. We must remember that only a tyrannical government is afraid of the press.
We must look at the bigger picture here. Right from the start, this administration has been targeting critical voices -- from elected officials to the media and journalists. Using the power of intimidation, they have enforced prior restraint, cease and desist, libel case, and threats. These are mechanisms that do not only create “chilling effect” but are deliberate attacks on Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression.
Thomas Jefferson was right when he said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” There is no democracy when there is no free press. This is very simple. When FOE is taken from us, we cannot fight for our rights and we cannot hold people in power accountable even if they have committed mistakes, illegal acts, misconducts, and abuses.
Democracy in the country is threatened. The very freedom that our ancestors and heroes have fought and died for is under attack. This government is slowly turning into a fascist regime by strengthening its military and police forces, dissolving separation of powers, red-tagging critics, and silencing the watchdog. The worst part is that many people are still complacent despite the signs of dictatorship.
Right now, we must fight while we still can. It is our duty to safeguard our freedoms. It does not matter who is in power. Press freedom and freedom of expression are non-negotiables in a democratic society.
For when we are silent, evil triumphs.