‘Our democracy will die without press freedom’


Recent court decisions seem to debunk the generally held view that the judiciary is the bulwark of individual liberty. Gone was the time when the courts served as the most independent institution to protect the rights of the individual. Once considered as the bastion of freedom, the courts were seen by our people as the safe harbor that secure them from any assault of their liberties.

Now, the general public hardly regards the judges as the ever-vigilant sentinels of the people’s rights. Undaunted and uncompromising, the men in robes are expected to dispense justice without fear or favor and act independently at all times, beholden to no one even from the authority that appointed them to the bench. Judges should not pay obeisance to the ruling power, which only bolsters the fear of many that the rule of law is becoming a mirage in this country. It’s sad to note that in the international Rule of Law Index in 2020, our country’s rule of law score has steadily declined during the recent years. We need incorruptible, morally upright and impartial judges to uphold the rule of law in our country. As aptly observed by one legal scholar, “(A) judicial system is corrupt if truth is denied the right to be a witness.” The scale of justice should be balanced and should not tilt on the side of one party to the case. A judge should not check which side of the bread is buttered and render judgment that will curry favor from those in power. The eyes of lady justice are covered so that she can decide the case without looking at future promotion or juicy position. We need bold and independent judges imbued with integrity and libertarian ideals if we want to restore the court’s primordial role as the vanguard of justice.

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The freedom of expression is among the most valued and cherished rights granted to an individual. It is readily available and can be wielded handily by any person regardless of his political belief and economic condition. History is replete with incidents where the tongue or pen had been the sharpest sword that exposed a despot or toppled a corrupt regime. No wonder, the freedom of expression is the first to be curtailed by the tyrants if they want to preserve their oppressive rule. The freedom of expression is anathema to an authoritarian regime. In his recent testimony before Congress investigating the alleged violations of ABS-CBN of its franchise, former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile admitted that one of the first actions of the Marcos regime was to clamp down ABS-CBN and the free press to ensure that there would be no ubiquitous press to question Martial Law. More than the courts, the fearless press has proved equal to its mandate of shielding our fundamental freedom. The press is healthy when there is no prior restraint on the expression and dissemination of news and ideas. Despite intimidation and repression, we still have intrepid newsmen and journalists who continue independent reporting. Rappler and ABS-CBN are two media organizations that have remained true and faithful to their profession. In reporting news, there is no substitute for facts. Factual coverage is the best antidote against fake news and massive disinformation. With the proposed Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020, we need a more robust press to ensure truthful account of the events happening around us. Our democracy will die without press freedom.

Article III, Section 4 of the Constitution provides: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” This sounds absolute but this is not the case. Every right must be exercised with due regards to the rights of others and subject to the limitations of the law. This is the reason why slander and libel are punished. Likewise, obscene and contemptuous language is proscribed. The test for limitations on freedom of expression is “the clear and present danger rule.” The classic illustration of such a test is when someone shouts “Fire!” inside a crowded theater. Moreover, the Philippines is a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 19 of which provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontier…”

It was John Stuart Mill in his writing “On Liberty” published in 1859 who first espoused the view that the true test of truth is its acceptance in the marketplace of ideas. This “marketplace of ideas” has become a powerful metaphor to advance the cause of freedom of expression and has been invoked in leading court decisions in many jurisdictions involving the issue of free expression. Mill claimed that there should be free flow of ideas and their competition with one another is the best way to separate facts from falsehoods. If we live on falsehoods and fake news, we will remain forever in bondage. Only light can overcome darkness, and only truth shall set us free.

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