Ban the ban

SUPREME COURT spokesperson and Chief of the Court’s Public Information Office Theodore Te was treading on dangerous ground last week—and for reasons that are still not clear.

As he himself reminded everyone in the aftermath of his “ban” on live media coverage of his Tuesday press briefing, Te has often lent his legal skills to the cause of free expression and press freedom. Te was the lawyer of the individuals and groups that filed a suit prohibiting the executive branch from censoring the media during Presidential Proclamation 1017 and of the more recent suit questioning the constitutionality of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act. He is also an advocate of the enactment of a Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

But in an unwonted display of anti-media pique, Te delayed his own briefing last Tuesday to make sure that the TV cameras would not be transmitting sounds and images live. Free expression and press freedom advocate Te was in effect deciding for the media how an event may be covered—without prior discussion with the media people affected, and without any public interest justification for it, much less the shadow of a confidentiality agreement.

When asked the reason for the ban, a report by GMA News Online‘s Mark Merueñas quoted Te as declaring that “the Court has never allowed live coverage of its proceedings and I read that to include the press conference.”

And yet, as justice beat reporters pointed out, there’s a difference between Court proceedings or deliberations which for sound reasons have never been covered live, and press briefings, which by their very nature are open public events a group or an individual expressly calls for the purpose of disseminating information which, it is presumed, can be immediately released.

Information in printed form, such as a press release, can be accompanied by a request for
an embargo, if premature release can cause harm. But it need not even go this far. If the information, for whatever reason, may not be immediately released, the logical option is to simply postpone a press conference or briefing until the time when it can be made public.

An information source who calls a press briefing also has other options during the event itself. He may preface what he is revealing with the caveat that it is not for attribution (meaning he may not be cited as the source), or that it is only for background.  But in justifying the Tuesday ban, Te relied solely on the presumption that the media needed his permission to his briefings live.

He claimed that it had never been his policy to allow media briefings to be covered live, and that if the TV networks had been doing so, they were doing so “without permission.” “I don’t know where you got the idea that I would allow it live,” Te continued, according to the Merueñas report. These statements presume that the media are covering these briefings at his sufferance, whereas they’re covered and need to be covered because of the public impact of Supreme Court decisions and other acts.

A news source can invoke the need for confidentiality in certain instances, among them when the information being conveyed is so sensitive that public interest demands that it be revealed only at a later time, hence the media’s usually respecting requests for an embargo (withholding a report until a designated time and date).

A source can also inform journalists that what is being told them is solely for background, or should not be attributed because of compelling public interest because doing otherwise would endanger an individual, be damaging to the public, or has national security implications. Te cited none of these as his reason for the ban. As he himself suggested, he might have simply assumed that, because he thought that what he was going to say was not newsworthy, the media would necessarily agree with him.

That is of course a mistaken assumption. But what’s even worse is that Te justified a ban on live coverage—of his own press briefing—merely on the grounds that the same principle that applies to coverage of live Supreme Court proceedings also applies to press briefings.

The bottom line is that the decision to cover events live or not is among the editorial prerogatives of independent media. Unless issued in behalf of compelling public interest, it is not among the powers of any government institution in a free press regime. What should be banned—and by the news media themselves—is the ban on live coverage by groups and forces other than the press.