Hits and Misses: Coverage of the SC Decision on Factual Sufficiency of Proclamation No. 216
THE DECISION has been described as a landmark and a milestone in Philippine judicial history. And media reporting on it failed to rise to the challenge of reporting Supreme Court (SC) decisions.
On July 4, the SC upheld President Rodrigo Duterte’s May 23 declaration of martial law and suspension of the privilege of writ of habeas corpus. The en banc decision denying three petitions questioning the validity of Proclamation No. 216 was officially announced by SC Public Information Office Chief and Spokesperson Theodore Te, giving only the tally of votes – 11 voted to dismiss, three voted to partially grant and one voted to fully grant the petitions.
Te did not identify Justices’ individual votes and explained that the main decision and opinions of the Justices were still being finalized, and will be released as soon as available. The votes of each Justice will only be known when the decision comes out. Not even the name of the ponente was released. The decision and its accompanying concurring and dissenting opinions were all made available the following day.
CMFR monitored news coverage of broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, The Manila Times, Manila Standard, Malaya and Daily Tribune) and television primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, CNN Philippines’ News Night and PTV-4’s News @ 6) from July 4 to July 10.
The monitored papers and newscasts summarized with sufficient detail the issues raised and answered in the main decision written by Justice Mariano Del Castillo. Coverage also included the dissenting opinions of particularly Chief Justice Maria Lourdes PA Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justice Marvic Leonen.
Reports took note of the reactions of Duterte, the three groups of petitioners and government officials who are involved in the implementation of Proclamation 216. Media also discussed the proposed extension of the effectivity of martial law in Mindanao in the context of the SC decision.
Reports also provided a quick background on Proclamation 216. Some included a quick rundown of the oral arguments made by the petitioners and the Solicitor General last June 13 to 15. Other reports explained the constitutional basis of the president’s power to declare martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and the mandatory period of 30 days for the Supreme Court to decide any petition questioning the validity of a martial law declaration.
But the lapses persist
As early as July 4, the press had reported assumptions that the SC would uphold the sufficiency of factual basis for the declaration of martial law and the suspension of writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao. A July 4 Inquirer report cited “a senior government official” as saying that he had read Del Castillo’s “85-page” draft opinion upholding the sufficiency of the factual basis of the martial law declaration (“Martial law official confident of favorable High Court decision”).
On July 3, The Manila Times published a story describing how the Justices would vote on the validity of Proclamation 216. The reports relied on “unimpeachable sources” that said an “overwhelming majority” would dismiss the petitions to junk the martial law declaration. According to the broadsheet, Del Castillo “had circulated a well-crafted draft decision that cleared Duterte from charges that he abused his discretion when he signed the proclamation.”
When the decision was released, Times reported, “Eleven justices sided with Duterte, three agreed with martial law within a limited area, and only one dissented during an en banc session, as predicted by The Manila Times.” Additionally, in the online version of its report, Times erroneously described the decision as “unanimous.” However, the paper was able to rectify this.
Multiple Anonymous Sources
The resort to anonymous sources also marred the coverage of the announcement made by the SC spokesperson on July 4. It’s a bad habit that the media must try to break. Scooping the competition is a perilous option when dealing with the High Court, because the decisions are cast in legal armor.
As Te limited his announcement to the totality of dissenting and assenting votes, the media could not resist citing anonymous sources which is dangerous as the information may prove wrong or misleading, giving rise to unfounded speculation. In this case, one particular detail was inaccurate.
Most reports aired on the night of July 4 and published on the morning of July 5 listed the names of Justices who voted to either grant or dismiss the petitions based on their anonymous or multiple sources inside the Supreme Court. Of the three Manila-based broadsheets, only Manila Bulletin refrained from listing how the justices voted (“SC upholds martial law; Duterte: Martial rule to continue until the last terrorist is taken out”). Meanwhile, of the TV news programs, only CNN’s News Night did not cite insider’s information on the breakdown of votes.
Although media reports had the list of concurring and dissenting opinions right, these failed in tracking the substantive differences. News reports last July 4 and July 5 said that three justices voted to impose martial law only in Marawi City. But only Justice Carpio held this view. Chief Justice Sereno and Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa wrote that the declaration should cover Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Sulu. No correction or erratum was released by the newspapers or TV programs to own up to their mistake; though their subsequent news reports carried the correct information.
Few Experts and Reports
Coverage lacked evaluation of the impact of the SC decision on the president’s martial law powers during the period. Mostly quoting the interpretations of the allies and opponents, most reports did not seek out other legal experts.
There were exceptions. Inquirer’s “SC clarifies: Martial Law powers not limitless” quoted retired SC Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna who clarified that the Supreme Court did not rule that Duterte’s powers were unlimited: “The 11 justices did not say there’s no limit to President’s martial law powers, but rather upheld the declaration precisely because there are constitutional safeguards in place against abuses.” TV Patrol and News @ 6 interviewed Ramon Casiple, a political analyst, saying that the SC decision was a boost to the morale of the soldiers.
Some TV programs, particularly 24 Oras and TV Patrol last July 4 and 5 ran more reports on the Bulacan Massacre. By July 6 and 7, news about the earthquake in the Visayas had taken over.
At this point, the high points of coverage are found in the Op-ed pages. Editorials and opinion pieces could outdo each other in terms of providing quality analysis for the ordinary readers.
CMFR cheers: The Inquirer ran the editorial “SC grants extra powers” on July 7 which analysed the SC decision, following this with a series of editorials (“The Court and martial law: 1. A different majority,” and “The Court and martial law: 2. A reasonable minority”); including several columns examining the decision were also published; “Judicial review of martial law,” (Randy David, Inquirer), “The term is ‘abdication’” (Solita Collas-Monsod, Inquirer). The Star had “Validity of Martial Law declaration in Mindanao” (Atty. Jose Sison, Star).