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The Manila Times
Rep. Edcel C. Lagman’s
Weekly Thursday Column

In the hierarchy of constitutional liberties, freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press, enjoys preeminence because the availment of other fundamental freedoms depends on the full guarantee of free speech and free press.

As long as I can still write this column without prior censorship or subsequent reprisal, press freedom in the Philippines appears to be alive. However, this does not mean that the freedom of the press is not under siege by President Rodrigo Duterte due to his repressive policies and intolerant actions.

In the hierarchy of constitutional liberties, freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press, enjoys preeminence because the availment of other fundamental freedoms depends on the full guarantee of free speech and free press.

The protection of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press is enshrined in Section 4 of Article III of the Bill of Rights, which 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 guarantee extends to the proscription of all executive actions derogating these freedoms.

In Chavez vs. Gonzalez, the Supreme Court underscored the supremacy of free speech and free press in a democratic government in the following tenor:

“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.

x x x        x x x        x x x

“Freedom of expression has gained recognition as a fundamental principle of every democratic government and given a preferred right that stands on a higher level than substantive economic freedom or other liberties.

“. . . For it is only when the people have unbridled access to information and the press that they will be capable of rendering enlightened judgments. In the oft-quoted words of Thomas Jefferson, we cannot both be free and ignorant.

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“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.”

In the very recent case of Tulfo vs. People, the high court held that “[t]he need to protect freedom of speech and of the press cannot be understated. These freedoms are the most pervasive and powerful vehicles of informing the government of the opinions, needs, and grievances of the public. It is through these guarantees that the people are kept abreast of government affairs. Without these rights, no vigilant press would flourish. And without a vigilant press, the government's mistakes would go unnoticed, their abuses unexposed, and their wrongdoings uncorrected.”

It is in the light of the foregoing constitutional guarantee and the libertarian decisions of the Supreme Court that the report of Reporters Without Borders (RWB) assumes alarming significance when it ranked the Philippines a lowly 138th out of 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index where freedom of the press is imperiled. 

The inclusion of Duterte among the 37 world leaders branded “press freedom predators” by RWB is unassailable considering the bullying tirades of Duterte against the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), the wanton denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal, the contrived criminal charges against Rappler’s Maria Ressa, and the malevolent employment of an army of trolls harassing journalists and critics online.

The critical reportage of PDI on Duterte’s bloody war on drugs has riled him. He retaliated by intimidating PDI’s majority owners with sham tax evasion and economic sabotage charges. This forced PDI’s majority shareholders to seriously consider selling their controlling equity in the country’s leading newspaper, rather than suffer malicious prosecution.

It is perfidious to claim that it was the House committee on legislative franchises, not President Duterte, which “rejected” ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal. The House panel merely implemented the well-publicized resolve of Duterte to disenfranchise the country’s broadcast giant for having been critical of his wayward policies.

The criminal prosecution against Ressa, which is influenced by Duterte’s public aversion to Ressa’s critical comments, is reminiscent of the criminal case filed against the editors, publishers and owners of the irrepressible newspaper El Renacimiento for publishing an editorial entitled “Birds of Prey,” which exposed the venalities of the American colonial administration. Several of the accused were convicted, imprisoned and condemned to pay damages. El Renacimiento closed down after selling its assets to pay for litigation expenses and damages.

Duterte’s continuing harassment of the critical press has ominously poised a sword of Damocles to fall on beleaguered independent media.

Free speech and a free press assume utmost relevance and importance in the 2022 elections. Differing views and critical comments on election issues and candidates must be afforded full and unrestricted exposure for the information and judgment of the electorate. To paraphrase RWB, free expression and free press are veritable vaccines against disinformation.

The Supreme Court in SWS vs. COMELEC, which was an election-related case nullifying unreasonable limitations in the publication of election surveys, ruled that a law or issuance which is facially challenged as unconstitutional for infringing on the freedom of the press is presumed unconstitutional, and the State has the burden to prove otherwise.

Verily, candidates and voters must be given free rein to articulate their opinions, preferences, and prejudices on election matters. There is no free election if the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are not fully protected and respected.

Rep. Lagman’s email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..