By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Prosecutors in the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona may push through with their plan to call journalists to the witness stand.
They submitted a list of at least 100 witnesses, including 11 media practitioners, and gave no hint of backing off.
Aside from the huge number, the witness list was faulted for having Supreme Court justices and journalists in it.
“Just simply horribly wrong,” said defense lawyer Ted Te.
The Senate already rejected the request for subpoenas on SC justices. Not based on the shortcut-approach-to-the-truth argument of the defense but “just simply” the good old separation-of-powers precept.
As to the journalists, the prosecutors may still “drag them” (a popular phrase suggesting torment) before senator-judges. Prosecutor Neri Colmenares, seeing the hail of flak, said he’d limit the questions to identification of news articles.
Work product, sources
That is how it should be. Journalists shouldn’t be called before any tribunal to explain work product, which only their editors can do, or reveal their sources, which the Sotto Law prohibits.
Yet one can’t tell what happens when one sits there, to tell “nothing but the truth,” and asked inquisitorial questions.
Recently, subpoenaed to testify in a libel case, I was asked to identify a column I wrote. I did. Then the defense lawyer asked on cross-examination: With my “vast experience in journalism,” he said, did I think the newspaper article complained of referred to a specific person?
Twice, the prosecutor objected, which the judge sustained: I was merely to identify a column, not testify as an expert witness. A third question, only slightly but adeptly phrased, wasn’t objected to: I answered, to the delight of the defense lawyer.
Not of judicial notice
A lot more can be elicited by senator-judges who get away with ignoring rules that fetter only the lawyers, and a presiding judge who equates flexibility with fairness.
There’s good reason for not calling journalists to testify at the impeachment, or any other, trial and the defense spelled it out: “Much of the work media has done is already part of the public consciousness and may already be considered subject of the collective, institutional, and even personal knowledge of the senator-judges.” In sum, it’s already of public knowledge.
But courts don’t take “judicial notice” of anything or everything published. A litigant has to bring it to their attention. And a journalist has to identify it.
Refusing a subpoena
This is the fact of life: a journalist can’t refuse a subpoena without risking being jailed. But he must require the subpoena, to tell he’s going against tradition of his calling.
He may reject summons, disguised as invitations, from local legislative or executive bodies. (Access to cebucitizenspresscouncil.org for Cebu media’s stand on the issue.)
When a journalist appears before a tribunal, he may do well to bring a lawyer who’ll protect his rights. At the impeachment court though, where only few anointed people can speak, he can just hope a defense lawyer would bar the stray questions.
There’s yet another reason, not publicly admitted, why journalists hate to be “dragged” to court: they occupy the hot seat, they’re answering instead of asking the questions.