Monday, May 11, 2009

Press freedom versus civil liberties

This is my column today.

It always amazes me how seemingly easy and convenient it has become for some people in this country to make reckless accusations and sweeping generalizations.

A representative in Congress allied with the administration or with some political cause that runs counter to one’s own expresses a personal opinion or files some harebrained resolution or bill, and presto, all kinds of generalizations— mostly sinister scenarios—is automatically conjured. Thereafter, everyone gets worked up on stretching the generalization to the point of absurdity.

A senator gets his or her hand on some unverified information and he or she automatically goes to town with it invoking all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Someone files a suit against someone else and the default conclusion is that the suit is politically motivated or designed to muzzle free expression and freedom of the press, or suppress the truth. In most cases, political vendetta seems to be the favorite default conclusion.

I don’t discount the possibility that the sinister scenarios or conspiracy theories being peddled or stretched out there to form some semblance of logical deduction may be true. That’s always a real possibility in this country. God knows the extent to which the people who prowl the corridors of power in this country have been found to have no compunctions about using power for personal political or economic gains.

But surely a line has to be drawn somewhere between reckless accusations and sweeping generalizations propped up purely by scanty and unverified information boosted by sheer hunch on one hand; and conclusions arrived at through detailed investigative work and intelligent, responsible, and professional analysis on the other hand. Surely we are still capable of restrained, intelligent analysis of issues without automatically resorting to name-calling and conjuring sweeping generalizations and accusations.

The extent to which reckless accusations and sweeping generalizations are automatically resorted to—even by people who should know better, by people who have built solid reputations for rational and analytical thinking—is disturbing. The whole phenomenon borders on laziness and carelessness as if people don’t have time anymore for detailed and scientific analysis or investigative work. Small wonder, really, that most major controversies in this country do not get resolved even after everyone has grown hoarse or tired from the shouting match.

We were witness to a number of incidents that illustrate this phenomenon recently—from the latest travails of whistle-blower Jun Lozada, to the issue of quarantining the Pacquiao Team, even the way the Manny Villar ethics case was played up. In all of these cases, there seemed very little regard for getting the facts right, for thorough and impartial analysis. It seemed that people were just content with the sound bytes, the quick judgments, and the human-interest angles.

Let’s take the case of noted broadcaster Cheche Lazaro who posted bail last week in connection with the case filed against her by Ella Valencerina, vice president for Communications of the Government Service Insurance System, for alleged violation of the Anti-Wiretapping Law. Lazaro is of course a pillar in broadcast journalism in this country with a sterling reputation both in academe and in media. I am a fan of Lazaro; I think very highly of her work (I actually entertained the idea of applying with the Probe Team as an option after graduation from college). Being dismayed that someone of her caliber has to go through something like this is a natural gut reaction.

But if we really come to think about it, who Lazaro is and what she stands for is important and relevant but is not a foolproof defense and justification. I dread the idea that anyone who feels wronged cannot file a case against anyone on account of that other person’s reputation. I dread the idea that people like Lazaro is deemed untouchable because of who she is.

Moreover, I think it’s a disservice to automatically rile against the whole case, scream suppression of freedom of the press, and make reckless generalizations about how the case is yet another proof of sinister political machination of the powers-that-be without considering the intrinsic value of the case in terms of validating the constitutional rights of the press and safeguarding civil liberties of ordinary citizens. Oh please, the whole case is potentially just as much a chance to validate press freedom given the opportunity it offers to vindicate Lazaro’s cause as it is an opportunity to stress the right to privacy of individuals against the often invasive posturing of media.

I am told that the transcript of Lazaro’s phone interview with Valencerina specifically reveals that Lazaro informed the GSIS executive that the whole interview was being taped. Is that in itself license to air the conversation given that Valencerina had been adamant about her reservations about the way ABS-CBN has allegedly been unfair to GSIS? Do GSIS executives, because of the nature of their jobs and given the public interest angle of the particular issue Lazaro was working on at that time, have the right to withhold information, deny media scrutiny, or be selective about who they want to give information to? How and where do we draw the line between the freedom of the press and personal freedom and civil liberties? These, and other questions, are valid and deserve clarification by the appropriate authorities, in this case, the court.

For quite some time now, I have noted the rather irresponsible and abusive way certain members of media treat certain individuals particularly members of marginalized groups. How many times have we witnessed Karen Davila, Mike Enriquez and other media people instigate police raids, ambush interviews, etc, without any concern at all for the rights of the people involved? We’ve all seen footages of Davila, Enriquez, et al., calling people on a speaker phone to confront them with certain accusations without even informing the subjects that the call was being recorded or will be aired on Imbestigador or XXX. How many times have we seen media people armed with their almighty cameras—hidden or otherwise—entrap people from marginalized groups in various uncompromising situations and then air the footages without any concern at all for the privacy and rights of the people concerned?

It can be argued of course that Lazaro isn’t Davila or Enriquez, but the whole case is a profound test of the state of things in this country; in particular, in the way we should be able to balance our various freedoms and in the way we exercise responsibility, both as members of the press and as individual citizens. Isn’t it about time that we have an impartial, intelligent, analytical discussion on these issues?

4 comments:

Antonio said...

At the risk of invoking, the No True Scotsman fallacy, I will step up and say that such reporters are hardly "reporters" at all.

They're TV personalities - they may have a journalistic background, but it appears they are willing to compromise it in the name of getting the "first scoop," and to boost ratings.

Speaking of assaults on on the free press, have you heard of the absurd taxes and tariffs the Bureau of Customs has been imposing on all imported books lately?

http://72.47.194.56/wp/2009/05/01/dispatch-6-the-great-book-blockade-of-2009/

Feel free to punch a wall while yelling bloody murder after reading that bit. I know I did :(

asdf said...

something was bothering me about the cheche lazaro affair but i couldn't put my finger on it. and then i read your column today and bingo! yun na yun. i don't see why media persons should be above the right of aggrieved people to seek redress in the courts. mabuhay ka!

Bong C. Austero said...

anton,
yup! i wanted to write about it but Jojo Robles, fellow columnist at MST beat me to it. but I will still rant about it soon!

Bong

Bong C. Austero said...

asdf,
thanks. cheche is a great person - but like you said, she should not be above the law.

bong