By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
More than once in the Corona impeachment trial, defense lawyers and senator-judges complained about news reports regarding Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona’s bank deposits and properties that were not yet admitted in evidence.
Since they are still to be accepted as evidence, the information is secret and shouldn’t be released, said senator-judge Joker Arroyo.
That’s a bit confusing. How can it be kept secret when the trial is not in executive session and is broadcast nationwide? The material is out there, not leaked by a small woman or a tall guy but presented in court and affirmed by competent witnesses.
Participants in the trial are gagged by express order of the court. Presiding senator-judge Juan Ponce Enrile told his colleagues, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and court personnel not to release the information.
But not the press.
One time, he instructed camera crews not to photograph documents being marked as exhibits or he’d evict them from the courtroom. But he still has to order journalists what to write and what not to write when they file their stories.
Senator-judge Miriam Santiago fumed when she read in the papers a listing, with mug shots, of senator-judges who voted for and against the stand to respect the SC’s temporary restraining order on Corona’s dollar deposits. It seemed to her that they were labeled pro-Coronas and anti-Aquinos (referring to the president who led the move to oust the CJ).
Santiago invoked the “sub-judice” rule, which was odd because in 2010 she filed a bill titled Judicial Right to Know, which prohibits court orders, writs, and injunctions that ban news reports and comments on court proceedings except in special circumstances.
Maybe, to her, the printing of her name and photo, along with those of other senator-judges in a sort of rogues’ gallery, is one exception.
Recall that Santiago, arguing for her bill, said the rule is a foreign legal concept that aims to protect juries from the influence of public opinion. Not in our country, she said, where judges, not juries, decide according to the law and evidence in court.
Even in the U.S. where juries decide, its Supreme Court said in Sheppard vs. Maxwell, “There’s nothing that proscribes the press from reporting events that transpire in the court.”
Will the Senate impeachment court reject that precept? So far, there have been only warnings to media: no direct order or explicit reprimand.
If it would come to that, the gag would be incongruous amid the court’s efforts to make the proceedings open and transparent. Speaking in Tagalog whenever they can and making procedures plain to TV audiences would be wasteful exercise if the press couldn’t report and comment on what happens at the trial.
Besides, how would such an order be implemented against web users who blog or tweet whatever comes to mind while watching the trial? How would they silence the President who keeps hammering at Corona every chance he gets?
Even our High Tribunal has been lax in enforcing the sub-judice rule. In big and important cases, such as the charges of rebellion “complexed” with murder against Enrile in 1990 and the recent Arroyo lawsuits, the SC didn’t gag the press.
In Cebu, lawyers from both camps in the high-profile trial of Bella Ruby Santos for child kidnapping with homicide give their own spin at the end of each trial day, ignoring the Code of Professional Responsibility that’s supposed to silence them.
It’s the task of media to report and comment on trials of public interest. While they’re free to do their job as they see fit, aside from observing accuracy and fairness, they must caution themselves against “pre-judging the issue, influencing the court, or obstructing justice.”
Otherwise, the court’s wrath will fall on them.