Journalists take a pause from reading COVID-19 charts and statistics for it is in the middle of the pandemic ravaging the entire world that we mark World Press Freedom Day today, May 3.
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, I joined an online forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) to listen to Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen. He is oftentimes the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court, a reason why his arguments are much awaited and respected.
Why are journalists important? More so during the greatest crisis to hit us in our lifetime? Justice Leonen strove to answer the question.
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But first he issued a challenge: “Sift through the distractions caused by propaganda of vested interests,” Justice Leonen exhorted the journalists in the forum. “I think it is time that we as a people understand that there are certain kinds of information out there that are only used to distract us from what is truly important.”
Leonen lamented the effect of social media on a gullible public. “Sadly many are now more convinced about the reckless posts made in social media and act on that basis,” he says. If there is one important lesson from COVID-19, he adds, it is “that it is important to trust science, to trust validation again.”
An avid user of Twitter, Leonen’s posts dispense insights on the law and justice. He has also known how it is to become a viral sensation, having weighed in on last year’s Gerald Anderson-Bea Alonso break-up. His twitter feed has since been peppered with love advice where he unabashedly uses the hashtag #LabGuru.
The ethics of opinion
In a previous ruling on a freedom of expression case, the Justice elaborates on why it is important to distinguish between a regular post and those from journalists on social media. “In saying that freedom of the press is primordial, I would make a distinction between the real press and those that are posting only because they want to retweet or repost,” the 57-year-old says. “A retweet or a repost, and the number of people that retweet or repost or liked it does not make the post true.”
Leonen says that journalism contains many of the ethics that are not there when someone posts a perceived fact or an opinion. “Journalists will always have the ethic of balance. Journalists will always have the ethic of validation. Journalists will always have the ethic of accountability not only to themselves, but also to their institution and journalists also always have facts verified collectively within their institutions,” he explains. “You have your editors. You have the owners of your publication, or the owners of your broadcast media and therefore as differentiated from any other person that posts on social media the information that you provide are often sought as a result of balance, validation accountability and collectivity within your sector.”
“Freedom of expression is asserted against government. It is not asserted against a private entity.”
Last April, Twitter took down "hundreds of accounts" tweeting under specific hashtags meant to defend the Philippine government response to the COVID-19 crisis. The accounts were found to be in violation of Twitter’s platform manipulation and spam policies, the social media site told The Washington Post in an email.
Asked by The Washington Post’s Regine Cabato what legal tools are available to combat systematized propaganda online, Justice Leonen says it will have to be a priority in the new normal where new laws will have to be drawn up. “Freedom of expression is asserted against government. It is not asserted against a private entity. Freedom of expression in the Constitution is vis-a-vis government censorship; it is not against censorship by a private company like Twitter or Facebook. And I think this is a very important matter in terms of our legal order. The Constitution cannot be used as a tool against commercial interests,” Leonen clarifies, “When you join a platform like Twitter, more often than not, you are asked to read the terms of service. That requires specific legislation. The first tool that has to be developed is a tool in our statute books that will assist people with respect to commercial platforms that have become of public interest.” He says this may even apply to the platform TikTok as well. The task, he says, will be for journalists to brainstorm and engage legislators more toward a new law.
How can journalists have a louder voice in the cacophony of free Facebook posts and free twitter accounts, Leonen himself ponders and urges: ”Get yourself heard more!”
It may have been of little consolation to his audience, but Leonen said in a judicial doctrine involving freedom of expression that “the antidote for bad speech is more speech.”
The marketplace of ideas is not equal, he acknowledges. “Some speak louder than others, some actually go there with a megaphone. Some actually go to the marketplace with an entire vehicle that has several megaphones on it, or even an entire screen. And therefore there are some whose voices are amplified because of vested interests, business interests, commercial interests,” he says.
What journalists should do
For Leonen, the value of freedom of the press now is underscored in four specific areas. He then itemizes the tasks of a journalist in this dark and uncertain period:
- “The journalists should assist the public collectively face all our existential threats as part of humanity and realize what we are truly faced with.
- “We should collectively reflect on why we have not learned from these existential threats and the causes of these existential threats. I am not referring only to COVID-19, I am referring to natural disasters caused by our political and economic structures such as climate change, also the causes of the oppression of certain identities, from the causes of feminism to racial discrimination.
- “Journalists should now assist the public sift thru the distractions caused by propaganda of vested interests.
- “Journalists have to guard against in times of emergencies, the emergence of any kind of authoritarian or any kind of ideology that will support anything that undermines genuine and meaningful democracy.”
Since March 15, the High Court agreed the Court will not shut down. It has held two online sessions since and has learned to embrace the digital world.
It also laid down exceptions where lower courts can physically convene if necessary to address a possible problem.
Leonen rattles off over a dozen publications, online sites, and broadcast media he follows to keep track of the news. “I don’t know if I have time for anything else. Sometimes I go through all the publications to see their take on things that are happening, not only in our country, but in different parts of the world,” he says. “So we are extremely aware of what is happening outside. We see the photos that many of you post and are like any human being affected by what we see and what we read.”
“A retweet or a repost, and the number of people that retweet or repost or liked it does not make the post true.”
On top of that, the Justice says he has reread the Constitution during the lockdown and even committed it to memory.
He will emerge from the lockdown a better cook and a little more experienced in washing his clothes, the Justice says in jest. Leonen, a vegetarian, says he’s been buying vegetables from an ambulant vendor pushing a cart that passes his home. And in parting, he dishes out one last bit of #LabGuru advice that might be appropriate for world going through a crisis that seem like no end is in sight: “Walang forever.”