By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Not when they expose wrongdoing or avert disaster in governance
U.S. President Donald Trump was fuming over the leak of information to the media that brought down his senior security adviser Mike Flynn and other unfortunate events that embarrassed his less-than-a-month-old administration.
This thing first:
Trump attacked media, notably New York Times and Washington Post, for the leaks when the flow of information came from his government. He declared in a tweet: “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be targets.” And then, warning he’d sic the justice department on suspects, proceeded to attack media.
The leakers are clearly the people in government who knew about Flynn’s phone calls to Russian contacts. Media are the “leakees,” which by U.S. law are not liable under the Supreme Court’s broad mantle of protection laid down in the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times Co. vs. the United States.
In Bartnicki vs. U.S., media using leaked material may not be liable if (1) it had no part in its theft, (2) media didn’t receive the information illegally, and (3) the matter published is of public interest.
Since our laws are modeled after U.S. precepts, the rulings may have, at least, persuasive influence on Philippine courts.
Why the leaks
Leaks are nothing new in governments, big or small. Each City Hall or Capitol has its share of officials and employees who release information to media unofficially or prematurely.
Generally, no harm is done by a leak unless it’s sensitive and the top official doesn’t want it publicized, puts it off, or would like to announce it himself.
Why the leak? The leaker may aim (a) to please a journalist in return for past or future favor, (b) spite a competing media person who offended him, (c) test public reaction to an idea, akin to a trial balloon, (d) embarrass and put down a political rival, or (e) help douse water on a fiery scandal in which he is involved. The leaker may be a public official with personal or partisan agenda.
The Obama administration, for example, did a lot of leaking, notably news that would boost its image. It only hated, a critic said, leaks that embarrassed its officials or exposed a serious offense or mistake.
What to keep eyes on
The journalist is just the beneficiary who’s doing his job. Yet there are legal and ethical limits on publicizing a leak. If the publication violates an express provision of law, the source of the information doesn’t make a difference.
If the material concerns a purely private matter, which does not affect public interest, media needs to be careful. Or when the leak involves national security or an issue that tends to incite political or religious unrest or endanger people’s lives.
But they may watch out for “the good leak” too: when it can avert a wrongdoing or disaster in governance or, the least, help the public better informed.
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