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Atty. Ralph A. Sarmiento's Blogsite!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Freedom to Speak, to Criticize, and to Question

Can the press ask questions or make inquiries about official acts? Obviously, yes! But, can they ask questions or raise inquiries without being under threat of criminal prosecution for libel or defamation? To this question, I could not give an exact and definite answer, as I have been telling my students in Political Law. However, I will try to discuss some basic precepts on what I believe about the function of the press and the strengthening of their freedom to speak, to criticize, and to question.

When the press asks a question or raises an inquiry, it is an anti-democratic policy to approach the same with a threat to prosecute the member of the press for libel. Anti-democratic because it would be offensive to basic democratic goal of encouraging the vigilance of the people and press in the acts of public officials and is anathema to the guarantees of free press, speech and expression.

Of course, this is not to say that the press is immune from a libel suit. But if the press or media could no longer question or raise an inquiry into official acts without being under threat of prosecution for libel, then how could an ordinary folk question or raise an inquiry into acts of officialdom. Public officials, unless in a patently derogatory attack on their person, should not be easily angered with questions of people or the press about their official acts. They should instead welcome inquiries on their official acts in the spirit of transparency and openness to their constituents. Any official act is a public concern that gives the people, usually through the press, the right to question.

The press is considered as the “Fourth Estate” of our democratic institution and to borrow the immortal words of Congressman Pedro Lopez in his sponsorship speech of R.A. 1289, which amended Art. 360 of the Revised Penal Code on libel, “the press must be unshackled in fulfilling their mission as the eyes, ears, nose, voice and conscience of our people.” An examination of the jurisprudential developments in democratic countries shows that the trend is to give the constitutional guarantee of free press the broadest scope and the widest latitude. It may not be amiss to note that American decisions even go the extent of viewing the function of free press and speech as inviting dispute. In fact, an American Jurist once stated that the press may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.

Therefore, the press, as the eyes, ears, nose, voice and conscience of the people, will always invite dispute and stir people to anger. This will always be the role of the press as the fourth estate of our democratic institution. We can even venture to say that the constitutional guarantee of free press can only have its true meaning if used by a press that asks questions rather than just reports, that makes inquiries rather than just accepts things, and that criticizes rather than just conforms.

Government functionaries should know that the press will always ask questions and will always make inquiries. And when the press speaks, it is the people that speaks through them, and when they make an inquiry, it is an inquiry of the people because as previously intimated the press is the eyes, ears, nose, voice and conscience of the people.

Therefore, government officers should have known at the time they sought the mandate of the people that they were to put on a new personality that would be open and susceptible to public scrutiny, questions and criticisms – a new public self that should co-exist with the principles of full public disclosure and transparency and other rubrics of democratic way of life. Hence, when the press asks a question, public officers should not answer with a threat to prosecute the person who asked the same, otherwise the ordinary people in the streets would be afraid to ask questions and this would not speak well of our democratic regime. Free speech and press could only achieve their true meaning in the battle of ideas; and the battle of ideas always starts with a question. When a question is raised by the people or the press about official acts, it is incumbent for the public official to simply answer the question and nothing more. This is how democracy works.

It is but proper to end this statement for free press by remembering the timeless words of Justice Malcolm in the celebrated case U.S. vs. Bustos (1918): “The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience. A public officer must not be too thin-skinned (“balat sibuyas”) with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can the intelligence and dignity of the individual be exalted.


  • At 7:15 PM, Blogger mikoy said…

    i may not surprise if most of our supposed people who can understand the role of the media is quite illogical in saying that "asking a question" is rebellious and the state would not permit such act, its because the very person in authority, the de facto government of GMA and Garci, is palpable ignorant in making public statement that the media should stop reporting the bad news that would eventually lead the people in rage. stop being wi-fi hyphocrite! dont wait 'til doomsday will swallow you into pieces.


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