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By: Rep. Edcel C. Lagman

The freedom of the press is an overriding issue in the long-drawn renewal of the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN Corporation. 

The freedom of the press, which is an integral component of the freedom of expression, is accorded primacy in the constellation of civil liberties which are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. 

Notwithstanding occasional alleged violations by ABS-CBN in its operations, the decision of the Joint Committees on the issues of “biased reporting” and “meddling in politics” should take into consideration the relevance of the following jurisprudential pronouncements:

1. Chavez v. Gonzalez (G.R. No. 168338, February 15, 2008) penned by Chief Justice Reynaldo Puno:

In this jurisdiction it is established that freedom of the press is crucial and so inextricably woven into the right to free speech and free expression, that any attempt to restrict it must be met with an examination so critical that only a danger that is clear and present would be allowed to curtail it

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“As early as the 1920s, the trend as reflected in Philippine and American decisions was to recognize the broadest scope and assure the widest latitude for this constitutional guarantee. The trend represents a profound commitment to the principle that debate on public issue should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open

“Freedom of speech and of the press means something more than the right to approve existing political beliefs or economic arrangements, to lend support to official measures, and to take refuge in the existing climate of opinion in a matter of public consequence. When atrophied, the right becomes meaningless. The right belongs as well – if not more – to those who question, who do not conform, who differ. The ideas that may be expressed under this freedom are confined not only to those that are conventional or acceptable to the majority. To be truly meaningful, freedom of speech and of the press should allow and even encourage the articulation of the unorthodox view, though it be hostile to or derided by others; or though such view ‘induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.’ To paraphrase Justice Holmes, it is freedom for the thought that we hate no less than for the thought that agrees with us.” (Emphasis supplied).

2. Gonzalez v. Kalaw Katigbak (G.R. No. 69500, July 22, 1985): 

“Censorship… is allowable only when the clearest proof of a clear and present danger of a substantive evil to public safety, public morals, public health or any other legitimate public interest.”

3. Guingguing v. C.A. (G.R. No. 128959, September 30, 2005):

It cannot be helped if the commentary protected by the Bill of Rights is accompanied by excessive color or innuendo. Certainly, persons in possession of truthful facts are not obliged to present the same in bland fashion. These true facts may be utilized to convince the listener/reader against a particular position, or to even dissuade one against accepting the credibility of a public figure. Dry facts, by themselves, are hardly stirring. It is the commentary thereupon that usually animates the discourse which is encouraged by the Constitution as integral to the democratic way of life…

As adverted earlier, the guarantee of free speech was enacted to protect not only polite speech, but even expression in its most unsophisticated form… But in order to safeguard against fears that the public debate might be muted due to the reckless enforcement of libel laws, truth has been sanctioned as a defense, much more in the case when the statements in question address public issues or involve public figures.” (Emphasis supplied).

4. ABS-CBN v. COMELEC  (G.R No. 133486, January 28, 2000): “The freedoms of speech and of the press should all the more be upheld when what is sought to be curtailed is the dissemination of information meant to add meaning to the equally vital right of suffrage. We cannot support any ruling or order ‘the effect of which would be to nullify so vital a constitutional right as free speech.’ When faced with borderline situations in which the freedom of a candidate or a party to speak or the freedom of the electorate to know is invoked against actions allegedly made to assure clean and free elections, this Court shall lean in favor of freedom.” (Emphasis supplied).

The ascendancy and protection of the press freedom are projected in bolder relief during elections so much so that there should be no ban on “meddling in politics”.

5. Osmeña v. COMELEC (G.R. No. 132231, March 31, 1998) quoting the Federal Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo: “…The first amendment (which) was designed to ‘secure the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources’ and ‘to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.’” 

6. Social Weather Station, Inc. vs. COMELEC (G.R. No. 147571, May 5, 2001): "Because of the preferred status of the constitutional rights of speech, expression, and the press, such a measure (allege to freedom of expression and freedom of the press) is vitiated by a weighty presumption of invalidity. Indeed, ‘any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity. . . . The Government 'thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement of such restraint.’ There is thus a reversal of the normal presumption of validity that inheres in every legislation." (Emphasis supplied).

This is a reverse presumption.

The foregoing jurisprudence support the verity of the following positions:

(a) The constitutionally-protected freedom of the press guarantees that media outlets can take sides, broadcast and telecast differing views, and advocate positions which may be opposed to partisan pronouncements and critical of political personalities. 

(b) Balanced reporting is required with emphasis on self-regulation and subject to the jurisdiction of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) and the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). Absence of bias is not absolutely required, otherwise the freedom of the press will be curtailed by prior restraint or subsequent punitive action.

(c) Critical commentary, reasonable preference and even incidental bias are protected by the expansive veil of freedom of the press and free speech. It is tolerable, not censorable. 

(d) Aside from providing the public with information, public service, and entertainment, a broadcasting network is a catalyst for the formation of differing opinions. Therefore, it is must be proactive, not passive or timid, which may even approximate “rhetorical hyperbole”.

(e) R.A No. 7966 which granted the franchise of ABS-CBN does not demand that the franchisee should adopt absolute neutrality because enforced neutrality is anathema to freedom of the press which protects critical commentaries. 

The limitation is that the telecast or broadcast must not be libelous or must not constitute a criminal offense.

Under its franchise, ABS-CBN is only enjoined “not (to) use its stations for the broadcasting of obscene and indecent language, speech, act or scene, or the dissemination of deliberately false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest, or to incite, encourage, or assist in subversive or treasonable acts.”

It is not prohibited to take sides in the exercise of press freedom and freedom of expression.

(f) During an election campaign, the freedom of the press strengthens the right of suffrage by maximizing the electorate’s access to political and partisan information. Television and broadcast outlets are not prohibited from “meddling in politics”. 

More particularly, negative advertisement is allowed by the “Fair Election Act” which recognizes “election propaganda by television or radio for or against a candidate or group of candidates”. (Sec. 4).

The “Fair Election Act” likewise does not enforce a policy of neutrality on media outlets and neither does it prohibit them from advocating preferences as long as rival parties and candidates are afforded equal time, space, and the opportunity to reply.

In the United States, television outlets are allowed to broadcast their own biases so much so that FOX News is invariably pro-Trump and CNN is basically anti-Trump.

In France, the newspaper Le Monde is undoubtedly left-wing while Le Figaro is ultra-conservative. 

The same state of affairs holds true in the United Kingdom where The Daily Telegraph is known for being a right-of-center newspaper which supported the moderate Conservative Party in the 2019 UK elections while The Guardian has a more liberal stance on issues and has traditionally backed the more progressive Labour Party.