Balancing the rights of the accused & the right of the public to access to info, etc.

Convincing the Supreme Court that the rights of the accused to a fair trial can be zealously safeguarded with a set of guidelines on on-cam TV coverage (a supervised production can be done)

Media organizations and giant television networks batting for live media coverage of People vs. Ampatuan, et al (for multiple murders), or the Ampatuan town, Maguindanao massacre criminal trial,  filed an action (an injunction case) in the Supreme Court to set aside the Supreme Court circular/ resolution banning live media coverage of criminal trials. (for a background on the ban, see the original 2001 petition for live media coverage of the Estrada plunder case which we handled, a discussion posted here years ago)

On the right of the accused to a fair trial versus the right of the public to access to information on matters of public concern –

Instead of just “pounding” on the right of the public to access to information on matters of public concern, the parties concerned have to be aware that the Supreme Court in a long line of cases have always sought to balance the right of the accused to a fair trial and the right of the public to access to information [the first set of rights (rights of the accused to a fair trial) have been discussed in this blog too, just search it; might elaborate on them later; they’re also in any media law course syllabus being used in U.P.). In other words, there is a way of arriving at or offering a set of guidelines that would help the Supreme Court and the public understand these issues instead of just repeating on and on the constitutional provisions.

The Supreme Court meets en banc once a week to deliberate on pending cases and urgent matters. It will be known after Monday (this Monday) yet whether the Supreme Court is able to include in their agenda this Friday’s petition.

If it’s included in the agenda, the likely action of the SC (at least, the route that the SC usually takes in petitions such as this), if it sees enough substance but no urgency is to simply give the petition due course by asking the other party (the accused in the criminal trial) to file a Comment (or Opposition) or any responsive pleading.

Petitioners will then be asked to file their Reply to the “Opposition” or “Comment”. And so on, and so forth (pleadings will be filed answering each others arguments), after which, the issues would be joined, and the Supreme Court may or may not call for oral arguments or the petitioners may ask for oral arguments. Then, the case would be deemed submitted for resolution.

A special civil action that the Supreme Court does not deem urgent takes months to two years unless the Supreme Court sees that a clear legal right of the petitioner is being violated and an irreparable injury would be caused/ is being caused to the petitioner by the present state of affairs, in which case the Supreme Court could, if it wants to, issue a TRO against the ban on live media coverage at the same time issue guidelines on the conduct of the operation of TV cameras or a TV camera inside the courtroom to ensure that the rights of the accused to a fair trial are protected, while observing the right of the public to access to information on matters of public concern. There are ways of ensuring that the rights of the accused to a fair trial are jealously and zealously safeguarded: With a court personnel supervising the TV crew inside the court room, and monitoring and making sure that the live feed complies with issued guidelines. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing deal, the parties have to know how to arrive at guidelines (more on this later).

Here’s a news item on the action filed by the media organizations.

Media groups ask SC to allow Ampatuan trial’s live coverage

SOPHIA M. DEDACE, GMANews.TV

Article posted November 19, 2010 – 03:31 PM

(Updated 5:57 p.m.) “A number of media organizations headed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Friday filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to allow the live broadcast of the multiple murder trial of suspects in the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province.

“Included among the petitioners were representatives of television networks GMA and ABS-CBN and 50 other media practitioners and representatives from the academe. (Disclosure: Howie Severino, editor-in-chief of GMANews.TV, was among the signatories.)

“Relatives of the massacre victims were also among the petitioners.

“The petitioners asked the high court to grant the following:

“To “abandon” its October 1991 ruling that denied the request to air the live coverage of the trial of former President Corazon Aquino’s libel case against journalist Louie Beltran;

“To “abandon” its June 2001 ruling that denied the request to air the live coverage of former President Joseph Estrada’s plunder trial at the Sandiganbayan;

“To allow live television and radio coverage of the Maguindanao massacre trial being handled by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221;

“To allow recording devices like stills cameras and tape recorders inside the courtroom “to assist the assembled journalists in their work, subject to reasonable guidelines on their use to be formulated by the Supreme Court or the lower court;” and

“For the high tribunal to set “reasonable” guidelines governing the conduct of television coverage of the Ampatuan trial.

“On Wednesday, President Benigno Aquino III expressed his support for the proposal for the live coverage of the massacre trial, saying it would educate the public on the matter. (See: Aquino backs clamor for live coverage of Ampatuan trial)

“The following day, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) head Herminio Coloma Jr. said he will allow the airing of the live coverage of the trial over government-owned broadcast stations should the proposal for the live broadcast be approved by the Supreme Court. (See: Coloma favors live broadcast of Ampatuan trial over gov’t stations)

“The right of the accused vs public interest

“In the 1991 and 2001 decisions, the court said the right of the accused to a fair trial is more important than freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.

“The 1991 decision said media have “no special standing” in a trial and massive intrusion of media representatives in court proceedings can “alter or destroy” the judicial atmosphere.

“The 2001 decision, meanwhile, said a live coverage might cause undue prejudice to the accused because he may be subjected to trial by publicity. It also banned the use of cellular phones, cameras, and simple recording devices.

“ “The Court is not all that unmindful of recent technological and scientific advances but to chance forthwith the life or liberty of any person in a hasty bid to use and apply them, even before ample safety nets are provided and the concerns heretofore expressed are aptly addressed, is a price too high to pay,” the court said.

“However, the petitioners contested this and said that if the accused need to have their rights protected, the public also need to have their right to know upheld.

“ “It is counter-intuitive and counter-productive to maintain that impartiality is to be guaranteed to an accused while it is denied to the people. Due process as embodied in Section 1 of the Bill of Rights (Article III of the Constitution) therefore warrants that both society and a private offended party are entitled to an impartial trial, too,” they said.

“ “As an accused’s right to a public trial is constitutionally acknowledged, similarly, the people have the correlative right have a trial opened to the public,” they said.

“The importance of recording devices

“The petitioners likewise underscored the importance of bringing recording devices important coverages such as the Ampatuan trial.

“ “A recorder is indispensable because it fulfills two purposes: First, it ensures accuracy in that whatever the speaker says is preserved word-for-word. And because there is accuracy, the second purpose is accomplished, which is to protect the journalist from charges of inaccuracy or invention,” the petitioners said.

“Recording devices also serve as safety nets because they allow journalists to get their facts straight and to preserve what transpires at the trial despite their lack of legal training.

“ “Reporters are not stenographers, and, with probably extremely rare exceptions, those who cover the justice beat are not lawyers,” said the petitioners.

“ “Accordingly, journalists, whether print or broadcast, who cover the Ampatuan trial work under a double burden: they are barred from electronically recording proceedings which ordinarily they would have been permitted to, proceedings which, unless they are legally trained, they do not have the expertise for. The risk of inaccuracy in reporting increases exponentially,” they also said.

“Allow the cameras

“Citing the 1987 Constitution which prohibits prior restraint on the media, the petitioners said the ban of television cameras constitutes prior restraint, albeit a “very subtle one,” because it suppresses images of the trail.

“They, however, said that if a live coverage may reveal the faces of key witnesses, “available technology allows the faces of the witnesses to be pixilated or their voices digitally obscured.”

“They added that if the court will make a wholesale prohibition on recording devices and television cameras while failing to furnish transcripts of court proceedings, the court violates the public’s right to access official records and documents.

“ “As with justice, news delayed is news denied,” petitioners said.” — RSJ/LBG/HS/JV, GMANews.TV

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