Downloadable MP3 from ZTE Senate hearing
The first half of Thursday's Senate hearing on ZTE, Romulo Neri and Executive Privilege, was taken up by above heated discussion of the conundrum created by the Philippine Daily Inquirer's unrepudiated claims that four Senate sources revealed to reporter Juliet Labog Javellana what happened during a September 26 Senate Executive Session. The joint Senate committees went into Executive Session to hear Romulo Neri explain the assertion of executive privilege over his report to President Gloria Arroyo, of a 200 million peso bribe offer from Comelec Chair Ben Abalos.
In a front page article, two editorials and subsequent statements on television by a PDI senior editor, the Manila newspaper resolutely stuck to its claims, based on information allegedly received from those sources, that Senator Joker Arroyo had somehow prevented Romulo Neri from dropping a bombshell in the Senate's executive session, about his conversations with the President about the ZTE National Broadband Network deal.
But, whatever actually transpired in the Executive Session, has now been totally eclipsed by the possibility that the Philippine Daily Inquirer is telling the truth and that if so, there are in fact four persons who violated the strict confidentiality rules of the Senate and cannot be trusted to keep such sessions a state secret. If they are Senators, they could be expelled for such violation. If they are Senate staff members they could be dismissed. And since the only other person known to be in the executive session was Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya, there are at least three possible "talkative" Senators or staff members facing heavy sanctions, IF the newspaper is in fact, telling the truth that it had four anonymous sources and is not engaging in its habitual and common practice of the art of the kuryente.
At one dramatic point in the Thursday hearing, Senator Joker Arroyo named each of the Senators present and asked each one directly to confirm or deny PDI's claim that one or more of them were the aforesaid unnamed sources that violated the Senate's rules on executive sessions. Only Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson responded to this challenge by categorically denying that he spoke to any reporter about the session. Everyone else kept quiet, though my DVD recording of the session shows a few of them looking like they had swallowed a canary.
There is now the following inescapable logical conclusion.
Either the Philippine Daily Inquirer is lying and it never had four Senate sources of information about what happened in the executive session, OR it is telling the truth and the Senate actually has a big problem with four rule-breakers whose continued anonymity has effectively compromised the security, confidentiality and hence the essential utility of the executive session as a tool of Congressional investigations in aid of legislation.
On ABSCBN's award winning program, Media in Focus with Cheche Lazaro, first aired a week ago last Thursday, Senior PDI editor John Nery (no relation to Romulo Neri) and the New York Times Int'l Herald Tribune Manila correspondent Carlos H. Conde, both defended the right of the press to use anonymous sources, as enunciated in Republic Act No. 1477, also known as the Press Freedom Act, whose entire substance is contained in the following provision:
Sec. 1. Without prejudice to his liability under the civil and criminal laws, the publisher, editor columnist or duly accredited reporter of any newspaper, magazine or periodical of general circulation cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news-report or information appearing in said publication which was related in confidence to such publisher, editor or reporter unless the Court or a House or committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.I was also a guest on that show and it seemed to me both John and Caloy were missing an essential point, because the main issue is not the freedom of the press to use anonymous sources as a general rule, but whether in this particular instance the editors of Inquirer abused their discretion to do so and had indeed violated the very law that protects such freedom. Throughout the show, I could not escape the impression that both these gentlemen believe the phrase in the law which reads "cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news report or information" means they have a virtually unlimited right to publish such information if they believe it to be true or the source is considered by them to be reliable. Yet it is manifestly clear from a plain reading of the Press Freedom Law as quoted above, that there are definite limits to that freedom of the Press from being compelled to reveal such anonymous sources. In fact there are two explicit limits mentioned in the law. First the freedom to use anonymous sources is granted "without prejudice" to the publisher's "liability under civil and criminal laws," for example the laws against libel, blackmail, and oral or written defamation, character assasination and the like. Second, if "the Court or a House or committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State," the Press can indeed be compelled to reveal such sources, under pain of contempt, fine, imprisonment, etc., as befits the violation of this Press Freedom Law.
I think this incident, however it is now resolved, is an important watershed in our understanding of the very concept of Press Freedom and its limitations. Press freedom is limited as much by the Law as it is by moderation in the exercise of its rights and privileges, and ought to be informed by wise discretion. Editors, publishers and ordinary citizen journalists (bloggers) have the obligation to recognize these limitations in their avowedly hot pursuit of the Truth. Such pursuits do not trump any and all rights, privileges and powers of other institutions as important to Democracy as the free Press, like the Senate of the Republic, without whose viable and secure investigations and hearings, the Press would have neither stories nor sources.
Let me say that I stand four square behind the Philippine Daily Inquirer in its normally sagacious and perspicacious investigation of corruption and malfeasance in government, most of time without relying on anonymous sources, which always demands due diligence and discretion to avoid trouble. The abuse of Freedom of the Press however, can be just as dangerous and destructive when such abuse is carried out by the Press itself, as by fascists and authoritarians.
I hope PDI will now have the wisdom and maturity to come clean on this matter, not necessarily by revealing who those four sources are, but by at least admitting that they recognize the real limitations on Press Freedom which are essential to defending democracy and enhancing everybody's freedom, especially when it comes to matters of national and state security. I was aghast on the answer that John Nery gave on Media in Focus to my request for an example of what PDI would not publish in the course of their work because it might endanger state or national security. He said they would never publish the identities of persons in the Witness Protection Program. Maybe he didn't have enough time to think but this hardly reflects a good appreciation of what constitutes national or state security, since this example clearly refers to the security of a certain class of individuals, and not necessarily the security of the state.
Many individuals and institutions, including me, are keenly interested in discovering the truth about ZTE and what Romulo Neri knows about it. I also strongly dislike the manner in which Joker Arroyo seems to be trying to keep the Truth from coming out. But what PDI did has not helped, it has only hindered the Senate's investigation by throwing into that rambunction bunch four apples of doubt and discord.
John Marzan of Philippine Politics '04 reviews what happened to the New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the United States when she refused to reveal an anonymous source, who turned out to be Karl Rove.
Senate Rule XLVII on Executive Session
Senate Rules of Procedure on Executive Session and Public Hearing
Lovers Quarrel: Looks Who's After Joker Arroyo Now
Joker Spars With Philippine Daily Innuendo
Reporter's Omerta and the Art of the Kuryente
Dissing the Senate
Spying on Senate Session on Presidential Executive Privilege Was A Violation of National Security
PDI Leak Has Destroyed Senate Executive Session as a Tool of Congressional Investigations in Aid of Legislation
King Solomon Just Cut The Baby In Half
Philippine Commentaries on Executive Privilege
Philippine Commentaries on the Public's Right to Know