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live coverage of trials

A blow to freedom of the press

In an en banc resolution signed by its clerk of court, the Supreme Court reversed itself on the issue of live media coverage of the Ampatuan massacre case. In its earlier decision, the court belittled the accused’s argument that live coverage will imperil his right to be presumed innocent since it will amount to a trial by publicity and would result in a pre-judgment.

In its earlier decision penned by now Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, the high court ruled that such fear is unfounded as it is not supported by any empirical study. It then applied the constitutional commitment to freedom of the press and ordered live coverage, saying that the sheer number of victim families (58), the number of accused (196), and witnesses could not be accommodated in the courtroom. But more importantly, it recognized the neutrality of media coverage. According to the court: “Indeed, the Court cannot gloss over what advances technology has to offer in distilling the abstract discussion of key constitutional precepts into the workable context. Technology per se has always been neutral. It is the use and regulation thereof that need fine-tuning. Law and technology can work to the advantage and furtherance of the various rights herein involved, within the contours of defined guidelines.”

But in its decision dated October 23, 2012 with no indication of who the ponente of the decision was, the court reverted to the prior jurisprudence of in Re: Live TV and Radio Coverage of the Hearing of President Corazon C. Aquino’s Libel Case, which ruled:

“Experience likewise has established the prejudicial effect of telecasting on witnesses. Witnesses might be frightened, play to the camera, or become nervous. They are subject to extraordinary out-of-court influences that might affect their testimony. Also, teledesting not only increases the trial judge’s responsibility to avoid actual prejudice to the defendant, it may as well affect his own performance. Judges are human beings also and are subject to the same psychological reactions as laymen. For the defendant, telecasting is a form of mental harassment and subjects him to excessive public exposure and distracts him from the effective presentation of his defense. x x x The television camera is a powerful weapon which intentionally or inadvertently can destroy an accused and his case in the eyes of the public.”

Of course, as one of the private prosecutors in the case, I view this recent ruling as a setback to freedom of the press and to the cause of transparency. In jurisdictions that used to ban live coverage, the concern was the influence of publicity to lay people who sit as jurors in criminal proceedings. In contrast, in our system, the issue of guilt or innocence is made by a judge with impeccable credentials in the law and in the rules of evidence.

But more importantly, even in jurisdictions with the jury system—which include all the States in the United States except for the District of Columbia, the United Kingdom, and even international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court—now allow live television coverage borne of their experience that other than lack of empirical evidence that live media coverage is prejudicial to the accused, their respective jurisdictions also recognize the right of the people to information on matters concerning public concerns. In all these jurisdictions, criminal prosecution is vested public interest since all crimes are committed against the people of a state. In other words, all jurisdictions which now allow live media coverage of trials have engaged in a balancing of interest test and tilted the scale of justice in favor of the public’s right to press freedom and the right of the people to information.

While the court, in its second decision, ordered the showing of live feed of the proceedings in court rooms in Mindanao, such a decision contemplates that only the private complainants have an interest to witness the proceeding of the “trial of the century”.

With all due respect, this is a myopic view of who were victimized by the massacre. While the 58 families may be the only ones with standing to claim monetary damages as a result of the massacre, the fact that at least 33 of the victims, including the 15 families that we represent, are media practitioners have given the entire country a right to witness the proceedings. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur Franck La Rue, the killing of a journalist is prima facie an affront on freedom of the press. While the Court’s second order may enable the private complainants based in Mindanao to witness the prosecution, what happens to the 100 million Filipinos and the rest of the world who have the right to protect and promote freedom of the press?