Journalists and their sources

Colleague Ricky Carandang of ANC is devoting his Big Picture program at 8 pm tonight to the sometimes vexing relationship between a journalist and his (in the case of Star columnist Jarius Bondoc) or her (in the case of Inquirer senior reporter Juliet Javellana) sources.

The following may come in handy, during the discussion:

Republic Act 53 (the Sotto law, named after the first Sen. Vicente Sotto)

AN ACT TO EXEMPT THE PUBLISHER, EDITOR OR REPORTER OF ANY PUBLICATION FROM REVEALING THE SOURCE OF PUBLISHED NEWS OR INFORMATION OBTAINED IN CONFIDENCE

Section 1.  The publisher, editor or duly accredited reporter of any newspaper, magazine or periodical of general circulation cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news-report or information appearing in said publication which was related in confidence to such publisher, editor or reporter, unless the court or a House or committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the interest of the State.

Sec.  2.  All provisions of law or rules of court inconsistent with this Act are hereby repealed or modified accordingly.

Sec.  3.  This Act shall take effect upon its approval.

Approved, October 5, 1946

Republic Act 1477

AN ACT AMENDING SECTION ONE OF REPUBLIC ACT NUMBERED FIFTY-THREE, ENTITLED “AN ACT TO EXEMPT THE PUBLISHER, EDITOR, COLUMNIST OR REPORTER OF ANY PUBLICATION FROM REVEALING THE SOURCE OF PUBLISHED NEWS OR INFORMATION OBTAINED IN CONFIDENCE”

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Philippines in Congress assembled:

Sec. 1. Section One of Republic Act Numbered Fifty-Three is amended to read as follows:

“Sec. 1. Without prejudice to his liability under the civil and criminal laws, the publisher, editor columnist or duly accredited reporter of any newspaper, magazine or periodical of general circulation cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news-report or information appearing in said publication which was related in confidence to such publisher, editor or reporter unless the Court or a House or committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.”

Sec. 2. This Act shall take effect upon its approval.

Approved, June 15, 1956.

The majority opinion in In re Jurado (1995), written by Chief Justice Narvasa

First excerpt

This opinion neither negates nor seeks to enervate the proposition that a newsman has a right to keep his sources confidential; that he cannot be compelled by the courts to disclose them, as provided by R. A. 53, unless the security of the State demands such revelation. But it does hold that he cannot invoke such right as a shield against liability for printing stories that are untrue and derogatory of the courts, or others. The ruling, in other words, is that when called to account for publications denounced as inaccurate and misleading, the journalist has the option (a) to demonstrate their truthfulness or accuracy even if in the process he disclose his sources, or (b) to refuse, on the ground that to do so would require such disclosure. In the latter event, however, he must be ready to accept the consequences of publishing untruthful or misleading stories the truth and accuracy of which he is unwilling or made no bona fide effort to prove; for R. A. 53, as amended, is quite unequivocal that the right of refusal to disclose sources is “without prejudice to liability under civil and criminal laws.”

R. A. 53 thus confers no immunity from prosecution for libel or for other sanction under law. It does not declare that the publication of any news report or information which was “related in confidence” to the journalist is not actionable; such circumstance [of confidentiality] does not purge, the publication of its character as defamatory, if indeed it be such, and actionable on that ground. All it does is give the journalist the right to refuse [or not to be compelled] to reveal the source of any news report published by him which was revealed to him in confidence.

A journalist cannot say, e.g.: a person of whose veracity I have no doubt told me in confidence that Justices X and Y received a bribe of P1M each for their votes in such and such a case, or that a certain Judge maintains a mistress, and when called to account for such statements, absolves himself by claiming immunity under R. A. 53 or invoking press freedom.

Second excerpt

It is argued that compelling a journalist to substantiate the news report or information confidentially revealed to him would necessarily negate or dilute his right to refuse disclosure of its source. The argument will not stand scrutiny. A journalist’s “source” either exists or is fictitious. If the latter, plainly, the journalist is entitled to no protection or immunity whatsoever. If the “source” actually exists, the information furnished is either capable of independent substantiation, or it is not. If the first, the journalist’s duty is clear: ascertain, if not obtain, the evidence by which the information may be verified before publishing the same; and if thereafter called to account therefor, present such evidence and in the process afford the party adversely affected thereby opportunity to dispute the information or show it to be false.

If the information is not verifiable, and it is derogatory of any third party, then it ought not to be published for obvious reasons. It would be unfair to the subject of the report, who would be without means of refuting the imputations against him. And it would afford an unscrupulous journalist a ready device by which to smear third parties without the obligation to substantiate his imputations by merely claiming that the information had been given to him “in confidence”.

It is suggested that there is another face to the privileged character of a journalist’s source of information than merely the protection of the journalist, and that it is intended to protect also the source itself. What clearly is implied is that journalist may not reveal his source without the latter’s clearance or consent. This totally overlooks the fact that the object of a derogatory publication has at least an equal right to know the source thereof and, if indeed traduced, to the opportunity of obtaining just satisfaction from the traducer.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Puno, concurred in by Justice Padilla:

First excerpt

There is another aspect of freedom of the press which the majority failed to consider. The sanctity of a newsman’s source of information is not only intended to protect a newsman but also the source of his information. When a person transmits confidential information to a newsman, he is exercising his freedom of speech on condition of anonimity. In Talley v. California,[17] an ordinance which penalized the distribution of any handbill which did not identify its author was struck down as unconstitutional. It was held that “identification and fear of reprisal might deter perfectly peaceful discussions of public matters of importance.”[18] It is thus arguable that a newsman by himself does not have the option to reveal or not to reveal the identity of his source of information. His source may have an independent right to the protection of his anonymity in the exercise of freedom of speech. This issue, however, need not be resolved in the case at bench but in a more appropriate setting. Be that as it may, I bewail the precipitate majority ruling that a newsman has an unqualified option to reveal the confidential source of his information for its inevitable effect is to discourage people from giving confidential information to the press. Again, the impairment, of the flow of information to the public will suffer an irreparable harm.

Second excerpt

Again, with due respect, I submit that the majority misappreciates the role of the press as a critic of government in democratic society. The Constitution did not conceive the press to act as the cheer leader for of government, including the judiciary. Rather, the press is the agent[29] of the people when it gathers news derogatory to those who hold the reins of government. The agency is necessary because the people must have all available information before they exercise their sovereign judgment. As well observed: “The newspapers, magazines, and other journals of the country, it is safe to say, have shed and continue to shed, more light on the public and business affairs of the nation than any other instrument of publicity; and since informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment the suppression of abridgment of the publicity afforded by a free press cannot be regarded otherwise than with grave concern.”[30] As agent of the people, the most important function of the press in a free society is to inform and it cannot inform if it is uninformed. We should be wary when the independent sources of information of the press dry up, for then the press will end up printing “praise” releases and that is no way for the people to know the truth.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, I FIND PUNO’S REASONING MORE SYMPATHETIC — and a better guarantee of that democratic ideal, the informed consent of the governed. This line, in particular, with Holmesian succinctness, bears repeating: “As agent of the people, the most important function of the press in a free society is to inform and it cannot inform if it is uninformed.”

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Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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