By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Strictly speaking, the five students of St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu who figured in the controversy, initially were not legally protected by the law on media coverage of children.
They are minors all right but the laws and the rules adopted by DOJ (Department of Justice) and KBP, the association of broadcasters, govern only:
– Children victims (of abuse, exploitation, neglect, or discrimination);
– Children in armed conflict;
– Children in conflict with the law; and
– Children witnesses.
One parent went to court to ask for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against STC so that his daughter could join the March 27, 2012 graduation rites.
Because of two-piece swimsuit photos she posted on Facebook, the child, with four classmates, was punished by banning them at the high school commencement.
It wasn’t a case of sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect, or discrimination. While the parent who filed the lawsuit cited instances when the child was allegedly verbally shamed by school administrators, it was merely to support the plea for STC to allow the child to attend the ceremony, not the basis or cause of the complaint.
The other legal instances requiring child protection in media coverage specify records with police, NBI, and other government agencies, which must be destroyed; non-disclosure of identity in all stages of investigation and trial of drug cases and those in which the child is alleged or accused of a crime or involved in an armed hostility; and as witness in court or other legal proceeding.
And in that list is litigation involving children and tried by a family court, where proceedings are required to be confidential.
The parent who sued was merely asserting what he thought was his child’s right and the right of every student who passed STC’s academic requirements. The STC students, at least initially, were not in any of the situations covered by legal protection for children.
(The RTC assumed jurisdiction of the case as an ordinary case, not a case of abuse of children, and issued a TRO against the school. It was only later, much later when talks of suing STC for contempt that additional lawyers of the school said, after this piece was written, that RTC had no jurisdiction. Earlier, the RTC judge cited incapabality to be neutral, not lack of jurisdiction. The case has since been re-raffled to a family court and should now be deemed a confidential proceeding.)
From the start, even if it was still unclear that it was a family court case, Cebu media made sure the identity of the children was not published, not by name or visual image, not by allusion to parents or friends.
The sensitivity to child welfare should gladden citizens who worry about media excess (occasional) and zeal (mostly constant).
What does media handling of the STC story show? The local media is willing to adopt a limit to full disclosure even when laws and rules don’t require it.
There was talk in some media sector about not identifying the students or their parents even if they’d offer to come out to wage their case in public.
In cases of rape, the veil of secrecy is set aside when the victim volunteers disclosure and gives the crime a face. But then, in past cases, victims who came out in the open were women of legal age, not children.
While DOJ-KBP rules refer to exceptional cases when disclosing identity of the child victim “is demonstrably in the public interest,” that would be a call each individual news organization has to make.
If that happens, not just the company lawyer must be heard. Editors and news managers must decide whether the breach of secrecy would promote public welfare and even shoot up readership or ratings but could shatter the child.
A twin challenge of protecting the child is ferreting out the facts.
While STC was stingy with information, not enough energy was spent on getting and checking data from sources other than the parties to the dispute.
Until now there are still murky areas of the conflict that media reports failed to cast light on, for their public to understand it better.
Right of school to discipline students, extent of academic freedom, right of students to privacy outside the school, and right of courts to uphold their authority were among the issues that lacked facts.
But then, the STC story is not one of those cases that quickly get cold. Media can still catch up, but within the limits of the law on family court proceedings.