Tag Archives: Verafiles

Media pluralism and Free Expression

This was my concluding remarks in a legal assessment of media ownership  in the Philippines  that I wrote for a project by Verafiles with the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) 

Formal legal and constitutional protections on free expression abound in contemporary Philippines. But these have largely been pursued along the lines of an individualistic stress on the Bill of Rights, framed as guarantees against state encroachments into individual spheres of freedom.

But this is really to be expected from a dominant discourse of liberal political and legal theorizing on rights as inhering only to individuals; this is not to disparage individual rights, which are important as they are.

The Philippine Supreme Court has acknowledged the Bill of Rights’ debt to the Enlightenment idea of reason as a mode of discovering the truth in its different facets. But more than that, it frames the Bill of Rights, where the constitutional protections against restraints on free speech and free expression are embodied as a hedge around the state, as it were. Perhaps, one of the most eloquent and explicit declaration about the purpose of the protections it accords to the citizen has been made by constitutional scholar Joaquin Bernas, S.J. who, in explaining the intent of the provisions found in the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Charter, said:

First, the general reflections. The protection of fundamental liberties in the essence of constitutional democracy. Protection against whom? Protection against the state. The Bill of Rights governs the relationship between the individual and the state. Its concern is not the relation between individuals, between a private individual and other individuals. What the Bill of Rights does is to declare some forbidden zones in the private sphere inaccessible to any power holder.[1] [italic ours]

But batting for media pluralism as a good state of affairs will not be helped by such a narrow frame of argumentation. This then will require a closer and creative reading of the Constitution and other legal sources, to be able to better account for why as a matter of state policy, a plurality of media sources in contemporary Philippine society would augur well for a vibrant public life.

There is, as the political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin remarks, borrowing from the legal philosopher Mary Ann Glendon, a missing dimension of “sociality” in much of liberal theorizing on institutional rights, which has been decidedly individualistic in orientation. “Because contemporary liberalism lacks an adequate notion of sociality,” says Chaplin, “liberal legal, constitutional, and political [theories] have proved unable to generate a convincing account of the reality and character of the legal rights of institutions”.[2]

As Chaplin argues, “[t]he empirical observation that many social institutions themselves do have positive legal rights is indisputable, yet liberal individualism seems unable to offer much beyond an implausible contractualist explanation of their origin and status”[3] Liberal theorists tend to construe the phenomenon of institutional rights as merely derived from the rights of associating individuals rather than as having some independent foundation and status not finally reducible to individual rights.

In practical terms, what this means is that the state ought to recognize the proper place of a plurality of institutions – in our case – of media institutions, in a democratic deliberation. Along that line, free expression as a right best flourishes with a legal framework where such a structural or an associational plurality is also promoted and pursued.

There are ample constitutional sources for safeguarding and ensuring media pluralism:

The Congress shall regulate or prohibit monopolies in commercial mass media when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition therein shall be allowed. [CONST. art. XVI, sec. 11(1)]

 The State shall regulate or prohibit monopolies when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition shall be allowed.” [CONST. art. XII, sec. 19]

 The State shall provide the policy environment for the full development of Filipino capability and the emergence of communication structures suitable to the needs and aspirations of the nation and the balanced flow of information into, out of, and across the country, in accordance with a policy that respects the freedom of speech and of the press[ CONST. art. XVI, Sec. 10]

 The Congress shall give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic, and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good [CONST. art. XIII, Sec. 2]

These constitutional provisions hammer the important point about “structural pluralism” as a corrollary to “viewpoint pluralism”, that for individual freedoms to flourish, they as well require the flourishing of various supporting institutions.

It is now a given that the right to free expression and the right to information are two sides of the same coin. One is the corollary of the other. The theory is that a better, rational, discussion of public matters is best achieved when citizens have at their disposal information pertinent to the issues at hand. The quality of such public discussion is only as good as the pertinent information made available to citizen-discussants.

An early theory of American constitutional design, expressed in an oft-quoted concurring opinion of J. Brandeis –a master of legal aphorisms – holds that:

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of…. government.

They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.[4]

Explicit in the necessity of providing citizens “an opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies” so as to build that “path to safety” towards a stable society is the requisite means – free speech and assembly; implicit in the process is the need to broaden the opportunity for public discussion by assuring a wide variety of avenues for it.

The legal and jurisprudential support for individual rights to free expression and right to information is robust and well developed in Philippine experience. But viewed in Glendon’s – and Chaplin’s – sense of sociality, the right to free expression and the right to information are now to be understood in a broader sense; that is, that the individual exercise of such rights must be correlated with institutional or associational support.

It is important that the news media maintain credible internal checks against the encroachment by the crass business bottom-line into the editorial room. Having said that, these internal checks guaranteed by the strict separation between the advertising room and the newsroom should be matched by external checks against a situation where a single dominant player in the media market controls both access to news and the news content.

The former is a function of how media owners understand the grand traditions that make good journalism work the way it should. The latter is a function of how the government understands the idea that a proliferation of independent news media assures the polity of a vibrant public discourse crucial to a functioning democracy. This is a question of extreme urgency, given contemporary trends in politics here and abroad about widespread distrust towards mainstream media and the rise of social media is the principal source of information for many.

Social scientists have a name for it: triangulation. The more independent media outlets reporting about the same issue or event, the more confident we are that we are getting all possible angles to the news of the day. The implications of just one or two giant business interests gatekeeping what gets to be reported as news by various media outlets should give us pause.

Media companies are a-typical in the sense that while on the one hand, they are supposed to serve the public interest in some way, the model that has so far proved sustainable, if barely for most, is that of a profit-driven, business enterprise. Therein lies a seemingly irreconciliable dialectic. In Philippine experience at least, we have not seen much of a media enterprise that is not just one of many interests across different business sectors owned by the same business empire, family-owned or otherwise.

This all the more drives home the point about the necessity of the state itself stepping in by setting up an effective system of checks and balances against media monopolization. In any case, as the discussion has already shown, it is not just a legal duty but a constitutional one for the state. While we have benefitted greatly from the earnest cultivation of individual freedoms, we have however neglected that other set of constitutional protections against media concentration that also threatens the same freedoms, if in a more insidious way.

In much of theorizing on structural pluralism in relation to civil society, the plurality of non-state actors participating in public discourse is seen as a normative goal; it presents a buffer to state overreach, and primordially, a mediating layer between individuals and the state.

In another, though, relevant context – on the question of the regulation of political advertising, that is – J. Mendoza has written about the constitutional command against political inequalities that justifies government regulation and the deep principle he refers to rings through for our concern as well:

The notion that the government may restrict the speech of some in order to enhance the relative voice of others may be foreign to the American Constitution. It is not to the Philippine Constitution, being in fact an animating principle in the document. Indeed, Art. IX-C [Sec. 4] is not the only provision in the Constitution mandating political equality. Art. XIII, [Sec. 1] requires Congress to give the `highest’ priority to the enactment of measures designed to reduce political inequalities, while Art II, [Sec. 26] declares as a fundamental principle of our government ‘equal access to opportunities for public service.’ Access to public office will be denied to poor candidates if they cannot even have access to mass media in order to reach the electorate. What fortress principle trumps or overrides these provisions for political equality?[5]

A side remark: in the latest case of GMA v. Comelec, the Supreme Court has unfortunately made a counter-intuitive ruling that defeats the purpose for which the Fair Elections Act was passed in the first place; the ruling practically gives the moneyed candidates more room to wiggle and reverses Osmena in the result, even if it upholds its original intent. But perhaps, this situation only points to the fact that we need more than regulation of political advertising if we want wide-ranging electoral reforms: we have to look at the necessity of campaign finance and party system reforms, to begin with.

Media monopolization courts the danger of speech being shaped by and directed towards a dominating commercial interest.

In the language of jurisprudence, it is in the “substantial interest” of government to regulate media monopolization precisely for that reason.

Yet, as this study has shown, we face multiple challenges to establishing media pluralism.

To begin with, there are various structural issues that require our immediate attention.

First, there is the seemingly incoherent system of rules concerning the intersection of mass media and public utilities. Such incoherence has often resulted in lax or incompetent regulation.

Second, there is the lack of a dedicated media authority that specifically deals with monopolistic arrangements. What obtains is a system of several overlapping institutions that deal separately with franchise, standards and competition. What this means is that it is difficult to develop administrative competence with a deep appreciation and respect for media pluralism and freedom where the authority to regulate is widely dispersed. The current system also requires close coordination between and among regulatory agencies but this coordination depends to a large extent on a proactive and enlightened regulators.

Third, there is the ever-present specter of regulatory capture. Constitutional and legal requirements on ownership of public utilities and media outfits have been ostensibly rendered ineffective by half-hearted regulation. This regulatory failure has a direct effect on the form and shape of the Philippine media landscape.

Fourth, related to this is the lack of legal safeguards against conflicts of interest of regulators. Very little legislation has been made to address this “revolving door” – the quick transition of individuals from working as a public officer to a private employee, and vice versa.

In this situation, public officers often have to deal with the moral hazard of exercising discretion in a manner that may unduly benefit private companies with the expectation that they may eventually exploit such benefits as a potential hire in the future. Similarly, newly elected or appointed public officers from the private sector may unduly use insider information obtained in their prior employment to create unfair advantages for their industry or company.

To date, only the PCC’s enabling law has a meaningful set of qualifications required of its commissioners designed to avoid such situations of conflict. This calls for a wide-ranging legislative reform. 

Fifth, there is the issue of media ownership transparency. This exercise in legal assessment has also shown how current rules on corporate disclosure are inadequate to address the established phenomenon of corporate lawyering. Even anti-dummy legislation appears inadequate to address the problem, precisely because corporate layering requires active investigation beyond what is available on the face of corporate papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the same, as seen in the Gamboa ruling, regulatory agencies themselves appear to be remiss in their legal duty to enforce regulation. Transparency is important, given the strong tendency we see of interlocking ownerships of media businesses in the Philippines.

To close: the current hype given to the “convergence” of public utilities, mass media and new media promises to present a greater challenge to the cause of democratizing media, if we follow Tiglao’s pointed allegations about the vertical and horizontal reach of the Salim empire in the Philippines.

Winthrop Yu, the President of the Philippine chapter of the Internet Society, has shared with me in an online conversation a thought experiment – that is, posit a contest between two teams consisting of the existing “duopolies”, PLDT and Globe v. GMA and ABS-CBN. “If the barriers between media and telcos were lowered, which doupoly would prevail and eventually dominate the medium and the message?” he asks.

He said he would place his bet on PLDT and Globe. “Thus, the threat to democratic space.”

I think he is not in the wrong, if we consider that there are now probably more smartphones than television units in the country. If Internet penetration reaches more Filipinos in the next few years, such a “convergence” will rule the day.

[1]Sponsorship speech of Commissioner Bernas, Record of Constitutional Commission, Vol. 1, p. 674, July 17, 1987.

[2] Jonathan Chaplin, Towards a Social Pluralist Theory of Institutional Rights, (3) Ave Maria Law Review 147-149 (2005).

[3] Id. At 148.

[4] Whitney v. California 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

[5] 288 SCRA 472, 473 (1998). CONST. (1987)

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