Zarate: Congress has duty to uphold press freedom, no power to dictate news content

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Zarate: Congress has duty to uphold press freedom, no power to dictate news content
Supporters and employees of ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast network, hold placards as they join a protest in front of the ABS-CBN building in Manila on Feb. 21, 2020.
AFP / Basilio Sepe

MANILA, Philippines — Congressional authority to grant legislative franchises does not include telling media what to report and how to report the news, Rep. Carlos Zarate (Bayan Muna party-list) said.

Members of the House of Representatives on Monday took turns airing their grievances against the broadcast giant, with members of political families saying they were powerless against media.

"While Congress does have a constitutional role in granting or not granting a new franchise to ABS-CBN, it is not Congress' role to assign to members of the media what or how to report,” Zarate said in Filipino, at the 12th hearing of the House of Representatives on ABS-CBN franchise renewal bills.

Zarate said that the lawmakers’ role is to ensure that the members of the press "are free to do their jobs in reporting or scrutinizing what is happening in our society, that there is no killing or suppressing of their freedom to report."

Monday’s hearing aimed to focus on allegedly biased reporting by the embattled network, with some lawmakers picking apart reportage and content from previous years.

Rep. Janette Garin (Iloilo, 1st District) zeroed in on ABS-CBN’s reports on a “flesh-eating bacteria” report that the network has long apologized for. ABS-CBN News head Ging Reyes said journalists involved in the story had also been given sanctions.

She also took ABS-CBN to task for its reporting on the Dengavaxia controversy. Garin, a former health secretary, faces a case in court over the discontinued vaccination program.

RELATED: How the Dengvaxia scare helped erode decades of public trust in vaccines

Rep. Abraham Tolentino (Cavite, 8th District), meanwhile, accused the network of bias, saying he and his brother, Sen. Francis Tolentino, had been criticized on air and were not given a chance to defend themselves.

Minority Floor Leader Benny Abante (Manila, 6th District), who is a pastor, meanwhile cited the supposedly inappropriate content on ABS-CBN TV shows that “offended the sensibilities” of the Filipinos.

Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta (Sagip Party-list) also again brought up the exclusive story of ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo on bills he filed that would allow dual citizens to run for public office and to grant franchises to companies that have had franchises for more than 50 years.

Marcoleta first brought it up at a June 8 hearing.

He also wondered aloud why the news does not include, for example, his donation of rice to the needy.

RELATED: Marcoleta labels ABS-CBN reporter 'un-Filipino' for basing story on public records | At House hearing on ABS-CBN franchise, lawmaker seeks NBI help vs 'cyber bullying'

ABS-CBN News' Reyes, in her opening statement, told the lawmakers: “Every reporter, writer, producer, anchor, every editor, in the newsroom knows that what we do is not just a job. It is a response to a call to tell the truth and work for a cause greater than ourselves."

During the same hearing, ABS-CBN CEO Carlo Katigbak assured lawmakers that the network commits to giving public officials airtime to express their side. "That is a commitment by the owners, the management, and we are instructing our organization today to take note of this instruction,” he added.

The ABS-CBN executive also said they are aware of issues that they need to be fixed in the company. "Handa po kaming gawin lahat ‘yan mabigyan lang po ng pagkakataong ituloy ang operation po ng ABS-CBN," he added.

CMFR on press freedom

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which monitors press freedom issues as well as how Philippine media reports issues, warned in May that "government closure of any large company affects many lives and leads to the loss of too many productive jobs."

It also said then that "a democratic government should even be more careful in shutting down a media enterprise because this would violate fundamental rights of free expression and media freedom enshrined in our Constitution."

Pointing out that ABS-CBN has been targeted partly for its critical reporting, CMFR said the network's woes "[deliver] a message to every media company. Should it be the pleasure of Duterte, this could happen to other news organizations; which would then spell the end of press freedom under this administration."

In a separate statement on the legal troubles faced by news website Rappler, CMFR stressed the need to protect the freedom of the press, which it said "produces civic engagement so necessary for democratic governance."

"It cuts to the quick the kind of national conversation that enables citizens to participate in public affairs, seek relevant and meaningful information crucial to their lives and fortunes," it also said.

It said then that "the entire media community must continue to push the envelope in the exercise of their Constitutionally-protected mandate to report the truth in pursuit of public interest and good governance."

CMFR, in the run up to the 2019 elections, scored media outlets that publish "press releases [that] were repackaged as news reports with little or no changes at all." It lamented that "some [in media] prefer to take the well-worn path of serving as the vehicles of those candidates’ public relations handlers who’re expert at manipulating the public."

RELATED: At franchise hearing, ABS-CBN scolded for airing election ad against Duterte

What SC jurisprudence says on freedom of speech

Rep. Edcel Lagman (Albay) on Monday also stressed that the freedom of the press is an integral component of freedom of expression, and “is accorded primacy in the constellation of civil liberties which are protected by the Bill of Rights.”

Lagman, also a veteran lawyer, reminded his colleagues of Supreme Court pronouncements on the freedom of the press.

In Chavez vs Gonzalez, Lagman stressed that the SC stated: “To be truly meaningful, freedom of speech and the 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 are they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

Under the same landmark decision, the also SC held government action that “restricts freedom of speech or of the press based on content is given the strictest scrutiny in light of its inherent and invasive impact.”

A content-based restraint is defined as a restriction based on “subject matter of utterance or speech.” Prior restraint meanwhile is government restrictions “on the press or other forms of expression in advance of actual publication or dissemination.”

The SC stressed that a prior restraint on a content-based speech cannot be justified by “hypothetical fears.”

“Only when the challenged act has overcome the clear and present danger rule will it pass constitutional muster, with the government having the burden of overcoming the presumed unconstitutionality. Unless the government can overthrow this presumption, the content-based restraint will be struck down,” the high court said.

Lagman also noted that Republic Act 7966 which granted legislative franchise to ABS-CBN did not prohibit the network from taking sides “in the exercise of press freedom and freedom of expression.”

The House Committees on Legislative Franchise and Good Government and Public Accountability will again tackle ABS-CBN franchise renewal bills on Thursday afternoon, on what would be its 13th session. — with reports from Franco Luna





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