Why the press can’t be forced to bare sources
LIGHTING THE WAY: There were those before us who, true to their calling as journalists, persisted on pushing the darkness so truth in news reporting can light the way in the continuing fight for press freedom.
In 1955, five reporters chose to go to jail than obey a judge’s order for them to reveal the source of their stories that he was poised to sentence to death the most powerful Cabinet member at the time, Justice and Defense Secretary Oscar Castelo, for the murder of a state witness.
Only one in that courageous bunch is still alive. Still fit and quick-witted at 82, Max J. Edralin Jr. (then reporting for the Philippines Herald) recalls in an email that day in jail by way of stressing that journalists must be ready to pay the price for press freedom. He writes:
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RULES NEEDED: “Let me say that I like the way your Postscript column of Feb. 23 put in perspective the protests against the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act (RA 10175).
“I am an old newspaperman (circa 1950s) and I support moves to protect the freedom of the press. But I agree with you that ‘in a well-ordered society there must be rules.’ RA 10175 precisely provides the rules to prevent the abuse of the new modes of expression in the Internet which can be fearsome because of the speed of delivery that can reach wide audiences with one click in a computer.
“I don’t see the press being threatened by the law, especially in the modified form declared by the Supreme Court as constitutional. Reporters know the restrictions imposed by the Revised Penal Code and I have not seen a libel case succeeding in a long time. Even President Cory Aquino failed to send Max Soliven and Louie Beltran to jail in her time.
“I guess the law is more for those in social media who do not know the limits and who might use this new freedom to harass people and destroy reputations. It is true that rectification is just as swift, but the damage done can be so severe it becomes irreparable.”
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HARD-WON FIGHT: “But I am writing to elaborate on your brief reference to that ‘bunch of courageous and conscientious newspapermen’ who preferred to go to jail than to reveal the source of their information used in a news story.
“The story behind that should be told so the present generation of reporters will know why no judge today can compel them to reveal their source unless the issue involves the security of the state. This was one hard-won fight for press freedom.
“I was a part of that bunch, in fact the only one of the five reporters involved who is still alive. I was a reporter of the Philippines Herald, and the others were Jose Aspiras of the Evening News, Manuel Salak of the Manila Times, Francisco de Leon of the Manila Chronicle and Gregorio Coronel of the Philippine News Service.”
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CABINETMAN CONVICTED: “This was in the 1950s. The case was in the headlines for months because it involved the sentencing to death (for murder) of Oscar Castelo, the most powerful member of the Cabinet of President Elpidio Quirino. He was both secretary of justice and of defense.
“Castelo had a quarrel with Sen. Claro M. Recto that prompted Recto to file disbarment proceedings against him. The main witness of Recto against Castelo by the name of Manuel Monroy was killed and the blame was placed on Castelo.
“Castelo’s alibi was that he was visiting Filipino troops in Korea at the time Monroy was killed. But he was charged and tried for murder in the sala of Judge Emilio Rilloraza of the Pasay City court of first instance.
“The trial went beyond the 1953 elections won by Ramon Magsaysay. This was now 1955 and the case was ready for decision.”
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BEHIND THE SCENES: “On March 18, 1955, we the five reporters responded to a call for a press conference by Secretary Castelo in his house in Quezon City. He said the case was sub judice but that he had a story that he was willing to tell us if we promised not to mention him as the source.
“This happens often in a reporter’s life. We promised not to quote him.
“The story was about two matrons who went to see him to say that they were close to Judge Rilloraza and they knew the sentence would be death. They asked for P100,000 in exchange for a promise by them to be able to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence to life imprisonment.
“Castelo said he didn’t have that money but would try to raise it. In the meantime, he asked the Philippine Constabulary criminal investigation service to set up a trap so at their next meeting in a restaurant the waiters were CIS agents. He still didn’t have the money, but he had a solid extortion case after that meeting.”
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REPORT CONFIRMED: “The story was headline in the newspapers the following day, with us quoting ‘reliable’ and ‘authoritative’ sources. The most important element of the stories was that Castelo was going to be sentenced to death for the murder of Manuel Monroy.
“True enough, two weeks later on March 31, 1955, Judge Rilloraza promulgated the decision imposing the death penalty on Castelo and seven co-accused.
“We had already forgotten the case when six months later, on Sept. 19, we received a subpoena to go to court, this time to face contempt charges filed by Judge Rilloraza ‘to preserve the integrity of the court and the judiciary.’
“Indeed we wrote about a court decision before it was promulgated and the judge wanted to know who gave us the story. Hearings went on for three months with the issue focused on the right of the judge to compel us to reveal our source.”
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SOTTO LAW: “We reporters sought refuge under RA 53 passed in 1946 authored by Sen. Vicente Sotto, known as the Sotto Press Freedom Law. Under that law, we could be compelled to reveal our source only if such revelation was demanded by the ‘interest of the state.’
“The judge noted that the stories came out when the decision was still under preparation. He said ‘the liberty of the press is subordinate to the independence of the judiciary’ and that ‘freedom of the press is not freedom from responsibility for its exercise.’
“Our lawyers argued that the stories were written in the exercise of our constitutional right to report all matters of public concern. They said by ‘interest of the state’ is meant the ‘security of the state’.
“The judge said that was not what the law said.”
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COURT BATTLE: “The legal skirmishes were long and animated. We had a battery of prominent lawyers led by no less than President Magsaysay’s legal assistant, Enrique Fernando, who years later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The team was reinforced later in our petition for habeas corpus in the Supreme Court by Reps. Ferdinand E. Marcos and Emmanuel Pelaez. The government lawyer was Solicitor General Ambrosio Padilla.
“On Dec. 7, 1955, we went to the court for the promulgation of the decision. We lost the case clearly on the broad meaning given by the court to the ‘interest of the state’. We were sentenced to one month in prison unless before the expiration of that period we decide to reveal the source of our information demanded by the ‘interest of the state’.
“The judge anchored the verdict on an earlier decision made by the Supreme Court on the case of Angel Parazo which, he said, affirmed his view that the ‘interest of the state’ did include the administration of justice. Parazo, a reporter of the Star Reporter, wrote about the leakage in the bar examinations in 1949. He served one month in jail also for refusing to reveal his source.”
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LAW AMENDED: “However, in our case we served only one day in prison because our lawyers were able to get a writ of habeas corpus from the Supreme Court the following day.
“Even the hearings about the petition for the writ became moot when, six months later, the Congress passed a law, RA 1477, authored by Rep. Floro Crisologo, amending the Sotto Press Freedom Law.
“The new law changed the words ‘interest of the state’ to ‘security of the state’. This was a milestone in journalism for the protection of the confidentiality of news sources.
“The fight for press freedom is a continuing exercise — but should remain in focus.”
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