Truth, technology, and transparency: lessons from press freedom week

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

This week has been particularly active for community engagement, with the media community celebrating Cebu Press Freedom Week 2023. It's heartening to see that despite the significant challenges of recent years, the community media has shown solidarity, especially when navigating challenges posed by new technologies.

It is ironic that technology, rather than simplifying journalists' lives, has threatened the core principle of journalism: truth-telling. This theme recurred in every forum or talk I attended this week. How can we remain relevant in a post-truth era, when technology tends to polarize and obfuscate rather than clarify?

At a fellowship dinner on Wednesday, Cebu newspaper columnists gathered at Club Filipino in the FGU Building, Cebu Business Park. The collegial gathering consisted of a mix of veterans and the not so young. In between songs from the golden voice of Sun.Star columnist Pubs Briones, we, the relatively younger attendees, discussed how new media platforms like YouTube and TikTok are competing with notable success against legacy media. This competition would be a welcome challenge if it weren't for the fact that much of today's popular content lacks the careful vetting by professionals.

In an age of ubiquitous information, access often equates to what is readily available on social media from sources eager to share. If it's not on social media, it's as if it doesn't exist. The discipline of delving into information that politicians and the powers that be want hidden seems to have vanished. This issue is exacerbated by government agencies increasingly using the Data Privacy Act of 2012 as a means to hinder both the media and the concerned public from accessing information on matters of public interest.

This concern was also highlighted during a forum organized by the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC). The event brought in resource speakers from the Philippine National Police (PNP), Cebu Media Legal Aid (CEMLA), and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines - Cebu Chapter. I had the privilege of serving as the moderator for this forum, titled “The State of Local News: Gray Areas, Hitches in the Crime-Justice Beat,” which addressed topics related to challenges in crime-justice beat reporting.

One of the topics discussed was the arrest of radio reporter Jose Rizal “Joeriz” Pajares of Radyo Natin on August 2, 2023, for alleged violations of the data privacy law. Pajares was detained for three days by the Iriga City police, accused of violating the Data Privacy Act of 2012 while scanning a police blotter for potential news reports. Said arrest called into question the government's commitment to the constitutional right of access to information on matters of public concern.

The police justified the arrest by citing PNP Memorandum Circular No. 2020-037, which mandates the safeguarding of personal data in blotters. One question raised during the forum was whether the police, when formulating such a memorandum, consulted journalists and lawyers specializing in constitutional law to ensure their rules align with journalistic standards as well as the libertarian mandates of the Constitution.

It seems that many government offices these days, including the PNP, focus solely on the word “privacy” in the Data Privacy Act. They interpret it as a ‘carte blanche’ mandate to conceal information under the guise of “protecting the privacy of individuals,” even when it pertains to matters of public concern. Recognized restrictions used to be straightforward, like on national security matters as well as law enforcement matters whose publication might jeopardize an investigation, rescue operation, or hot pursuit against a fugitive.

We must revisit current laws and regulations to clarify both journalistic boundaries and the limits of government restrictions over information. Otherwise, we risk a situation, if it isn't already occurring, where journalists simply rely on information fed to them by their sources. That situation mirrors what I described above, where news media simply rely on open sources like social media for information.

On a positive note, I would like to commend Lt. Col. Gerard Ace Pelare, the Police Regional Office-7 spokesperson and also a lawyer, for his articulate, poised, yet open manner when answering the pointed questions we posed regarding issues of police transparency in sharing information with the public through the media.

While there are still unresolved issues, particularly concerning the institutionalization of an access to information policy, these conversations are valuable as they foster a better understanding of stakeholders' perspectives.

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