Monday, January 18, 2010


By Obiter07

Weekly, we have to be content with just a sketch of the court proceedings relating to the arraignment of a multiple murder suspect.  While we may have wanted to watch it live, just a like a reality show, the Supreme Court has seen fit to ban the live coverage of trial in a resolution that it passed as early as October 22, 1991.[1]

In connection with the libel case filed by then President Aquino against certain journalists, the trial judge had initially allowed a live coverage of the case. One of the accused protested and the Supreme Court issued a resolution banning the same. 

The Court recognized that “granting or denying permission to the media to broadcast, record, or photograph court proceedings involves weighing the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press,  the right of the public to information and the right to public trial,  and on the other hand, the due process rights of the defendant  and the inherent and constitutional power of the courts to control their proceedings in order to permit the fair and impartial administration of justice.  Collaterally, it also raises issues in the nature of media, particularly television and its role in society, and of the impact of new technologies on law.”  It found that there was no discussion by the Constitutional Commission on the same and Philippine courts have not squarely ruled on the question.

It adverted to the current rule of the Federal Courts of the U.S. banning televisions cameras in criminal trials. And it cited the case of Estes vs. Texas where the United States Supreme Court “held that television coverage of judicial proceedings involves an inherent denial of the due process rights of a criminal defendant.” 

"Experience likewise has established the prejudicial effect of telecasting on witnesses. Witnesses might be frightened, play to the camera, or become nervous. They are subject to extraordinary out-of-court influences which might affect their testimony. Also, telecasting not only increases the trial judge’s responsibility to avoid actual prejudice to the defendant, it may as well affect his own performance. Judges are human beings also and are subject to the same psychological reactions as laymen. For the defendant, telecasting is a form of mental harassment and subjects him to excessive public exposure and distracts him from the effective presentation f his defense. 

"The television camera is a powerful weapon which intentionally or inadvertently can destroy an accused and his case in the eyes of the public."

In its resolution the Supreme Court held that - “Considering the prejudice it poses to the defendant’s right to due process as well as to the fair and orderly administration of justice and considering further that the freedom of the press and the right of the people to information may be served and satisfied by less distracting, degrading and prejudicial means, live radio and television coverage of court proceedings shall not be allowed. Video footages of court hearings for news purposes shall be restricted and limited to shots of the courtroom, the judicial officers, the parties and their counsel taken prior to the commencement of official proceedings. No video shots or photographs shall be permitted during the trial proper.”

In 2001 in another case involving another President, the Supreme Court re-examined this resolution and affirmed the ban. [A.M. No. 01-4-03-SC.  June 29, 2001.] RE: REQUEST RADIO-TV COVERAGE OF THE TRIAL IN THE  SANDIGANBAYAN OF THE PLUNDER CASES AGAINST THE FORMER PRESIDENT JOSEPH E. ESTRADA.

The Court declared that the issue involved “the weighing out of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and the right to public information, on the one hand, and the fundamental rights of the accused, on the other hand, along with the constitutional power of a court to control its proceedings in ensuring a fair and impartial trial. When these rights race against one another, jurisprudence tells us that the right of the accused must be preferred to win.”

The Court seemed afraid of the power of medium as generating both histrionics and in terms of possible public opinion tainting the judicial process.

“With the possibility of losing not only the precious liberty but also the very life of an accused, it behooves all to make absolutely certain that an accused receives a verdict solely on the basis of a just and dispassionate judgment, a verdict that would come only after the presentation of credible evidence testified to by unbiased witnesses unswayed by any kind of pressure, whether open or subtle, in proceedings that are devoid of histrionics that might detract from its basic aim to ferret veritable facts free from improper influence, and decreed by a judge with an unprejudiced mind, unbridled by running emotions or passions.”

“Witnesses and judges may very well be men and women of fortitude, able to thrive in hardy climate, with every reason to presume firmness of mind and resolute endurance, but it must also be conceded that "television can work profound changes in the behavior of the people it focuses on." Even while it may be difficult to quantify the influence, or pressure that media can bring to bear on them directly and through the shaping of public opinion, it is a fact, nonetheless, that, indeed, it does so in so many ways and in varying degrees. The conscious or unconscious effect that such a coverage may have on the testimony of witnesses and the decision of judges cannot be evaluated but, it can likewise be said, it is not at all unlikely for a vote of guilt or innocence to yield to it. It might be farcical to build around them an impregnable armor against the influence of the most powerful media of public opinion.”

The right of the accused to a public trial is not the same as “publicized trial.”

“An accused has a right to a public trial but it is a right that belongs to him, more than anyone else, where his life or liberty can be held critically in balance. A public trial aims to ensure that he is fairly dealt with and would not be unjustly condemned and that his rights are not compromised in secrete conclaves of long ago. A public trial is not synonymous with publicized trial; it only implies that the court doors must be open to those who wish to come, sit in the available seats, conduct themselves with decorum and observe the trial process. In the constitutional sense, a courtroom should have enough facilities for a reasonable number of the public to observe the proceedings, not too small as to render the openness negligible and not too large as to distract the trial participants from their proper functions, who shall then be totally free to report what they have observed during the proceedings.”

There is some irony that the accused who may have subjected his victims to such indignities gets to preserve his own dignity as he is called to account for his crimes.

[1] COURT EN BANC RESOLUTION,  OCTOBER 22, 1991, Re: Live TV and Radio Coverage of the Hearing of President Corazon C. Aquino’s Libel Case.


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