Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Press Freedom and National Survival

By Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno
Supreme Court

Like water seeking its course, press freedom, no matter how suppressed, rises to give life to democracy. This unalterable truth is emblazoned in our history.

Hindsight provides the best vision; hence, let us revisit our history, albeit very briefly. When our country was under Spain, Filipinos were treated no more than as tribute-paying subjects. They hardly had any reason for being, except to obey the orders of the Spanish monarch. The laser-like pens of Rizal, Del Pilar, Mabini, et al. exposed the excesses of the Spanish authorities and slowly opened the eyes of the Filipinos to their dehumanized state. Spurred by nationalism, Del Pilar and Lopez Jaena established the reformist paper La Solidaridad. Ideas that assail a stinking status quo all too frequently lead to mass movements.

The KKK, the Kataastaasang Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan led by Bonifacio emerged from the masses. In due time, they toppled down the throne of Spain in our country.

It is interesting to note, however, that during this struggle against Spain, the press was not totally suppressed. UP Professor Cesar Adib Majul opined that it would not be turning somersaults with history to conclude that the press during the revolution was “relatively free.” Indeed, the Spanish government even established an official newspaper on July 4, 1898, and encouraged people to contribute articles to the publication to raise the political education of the Filipino people. The government also encouraged privately-owned newspapers. There was only one instance when Aguinaldo demanded that the editor of La Independencia, a revolutionary paper, desist from printing views prejudicial to the government. It was a reaction to the lacerating criticisms of Mabini expressed in an article entitled “Something for Congress.”

We then came under the colonial yoke of the United States. Continuing to be fired with nationalism, Filipinos put up newspapers calling for our early emancipation. Among the fiery newspapers were the El Renacimiento, Los Obreros, Katwiran and Lunas ng Bayan. The Americans dealt differently with the Filipino rebels. More democratic than the Spaniards, the Americans checked their critics, especially those from the press, with velvet hands and not with iron fists. The critics were silenced with the use of legal weapons. They were charged with rebellion, sedition and libel. El Renacimiento collapsed because of a libel suit filed by the Secretary of the Interior. The office of Los Obreros was raided by American police officers on orders of the Governor-General. Copies of the paper were used in a rebellion and sedition charge against a labor leader who had led a Labor Day rally, chanting “Down with American imperialism.”

Next, Japan invaded the Philippines. It was wartime, and the restrictions imposed on the press by the Japanese to win the war were again different. They were designed to strangulate press freedom. Under unmitigated military terror, publications folded up. Still, some guerillas-turned-publicists put out the Matang Lawin and called on the people to monitor and report the movement of enemy spies. Not to be outdone, the Hukbalahap writers circulated the Ing Masala (The Light). The press went underground and refused to compromise with the Japanese military.

After World War II, the country experienced relative peace. In the 1970s, however, another kind of crisis rocked the nation. Peace and order was shattered in the countryside due to the rampaging New People’s Army (NPA) and Muslim insurgencies. The economy slumped and hunger threatened the people. Seizing the crisis as a convenient excuse, former President Ferdinand E. Marcos invoked his extraordinary powers under the 1935 Constitution and declared martial law on September 21, 1972. He targeted the recalcitrant press. He immediately directed the Secretary of National Defense to take over and close all newspapers, magazines, and radio and television facilities allegedly being used “for propaganda purposes against the government.” He ordered the mass arrests of leading journalists in print and electronic media “for being participants or for having given aid and comfort in the conspiracy to seize political and state power in the country and to take over the government by force.”

In the wake of this suppression, non-commercial alternative press came to the fore in the form of newsletters of religious institutions, campus journals and newspapers, the clandestine publication of the leftist underground, and the “Xerox media” that disseminated anti-Marcos articles published in foreign media. Later into his martial rule, the media monopoly of Marcos was broken with the advent of commercial alternative press like the We Forum. In the eyes of our legal historians, Marcos, the lawyer, was able to prolong his authoritarian regime through the adept use of the Constitution, which gave the President extra powers to deal with emergencies. Mainstream press was a casualty in the exercise of these extra powers.
President Cory Aquino then burst into the national scene, and for a moment we savored euphoria. But soon we were again confronted by crises wearing different faces. The security of the State was threatened by the leftist and the rightist forces. The leftist guerilla movement metamorphosed into a clear and present danger. On the other hand, the rightists destabilized the government with a series of near-successful coup d’etats. President Aquino had to declare a state of national emergency in the wake of the December 1989 coup attempt. She included mass media among the establishments that may be taken over and operated by the government for the latter’s self-defense. The nation survived the coup crises by a whisker. Freedom of speech and of the press was untouched and intact.
What leaps to our eyes from this canvass of our crises history? We see with clear eyes our experience with crises; we see how our crises diminished and destroyed freedom of speech and of the press. We lost our freedoms in the crises that engulfed us when we were conquered and exploited by foreigners. We lost our freedoms in the crisis that was fomented by home-grown despots. Today, we are still slowly losing our freedoms in the fight against terrorism, in fighting an enemy without a face, in fighting battles without battle lines, in fighting a war without finality. We are also losing our God-given human rights -- to life, liberty and property -- to artificial persons like transnational corporations, whose empire of greed is gobbling up the world. The tragedy is that they are taking our freedoms on the pretext of giving us peace; the irony is that they are asking our freedoms to be sacrificed allegedly to bring us progress. Tyranny is intolerable, but the worst tyrants are those who deny our freedom on the pretext of doing so to protect us; the unbearable tyrants are those who come in the habiliments of saviors. This delusion destroys liberty, and almost always the first to go is freedom of speech and of the press.

Losing our liberties in times of crisis is an experience shared with other countries. Indeed, this has been the sad experience even of the American people. The Americans underwent a civil war on the question of slavery; they fought in World War I and in World War II; they fought in the Cold War; and now, they are deep in the war against terrorism. Doubtless, they have emerged triumphant in all these wars. But despite their triumphs, some legal scholars are now asking the disquieting question whether in the process of surviving their crises, too much freedom was denied the Americans. In other words, they are tortured by the thought that in times of crisis, their government has tilted the balance too much in favor of security and too little in favor of liberty.

A leading constitutional scholar of free speech, former Dean Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, lamented that in wartime cases, the U.S. Supreme Court applied constitutional standards that strongly accord the President and Congress the benefit of the doubt, while ruling against the liberty of the people. Similarly, he pointed out that in government-overthrow cases, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the prohibition of the express advocacy of a violent overthrow of government.

This antipathy of the U.S. Supreme Court towards liberty was attributed by Dean Stone to the excessive fear of the Justices characteristic of people during crises. He theorizes that in the United States during wartime -- whether in the Civil War of 1798, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam War, and the ongoing War on Terrorism – the American people were gripped by excessive fear, and their government overreacted. He notes that this overreaction resulted in the excessive curtailment of freedom of speech and of the press, which the United States later regretted. I quote him: The Sedition Act of 1798 has been condemned in the “court of history.” Lincoln’s suspensions of habeas corpus were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Ex Parte Milligan, the Court’s own decisions upholding the World War I prosecution of dissenters were all later effectively overruled, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II has been the subject of repeated government apologies and reparations. Likewise, the Court’s decision in Dennis upholding the conviction of the leaders of the Communist Party has been discredited, the loyalty programs and the legislative investigations of that era have all been condemned, and the efforts of the U.S. government to “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” antiwar activities during the Vietnam War have been denounced by Congress and the Department of Justice.

Dean Stone’s piercing insights should also make us ponder on the restrictions we impose on our liberties, especially on freedom of speech and of the press, during national emergencies. We ought to pause, for the signs of the times say there will still be crises to visit us. We have glorified freedom of speech and of the press as a preferred freedom, occupying a higher rung in the hierarchy of constitutional values. Is it not high time that we study how the preferred status of freedom of speech and of the press can be given more substance in periods of national crises?

Let the debate begin.

1 comment:

merjoem32 said...

Democracy suffers when the press is oppressed. A healthy society can never be attained when the press is always under threat or harassment. I support any advocacy campaign that aims to promote press freedom. The truth should always be protected.