In 1981, Hollywood touched on a sensitive issue in journalism ethics, illustrating the conflict between disclosing damaging personal information and the public’s right to know.
The conviction of award-winning journalist Maria Angelita Ressa and researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. early this week brought back to memory the film directed by Sydney Pollack about a private citizen whose reputation was sullied in the press.
There was a parallel between the classic film, “Absence of Malice” in 1981 and this year’s real-life drama of Rappler’s cyber libel conviction.
Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman played Michael Gallagher in the movie. In the movie, he played a liquor wholesaler in Miami, Florida who woke up one day to find himself on the front page of the Miami Standard, a local daily newspaper, and suspected to be behind the sudden disappearance of a union official believed to have been murdered.
Two-time Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field, on the other hand, played the role of Megan Carter, a newspaper reporter, who wrote the news story about an investigation being conducted by a federal prosecutor on Gallagher.
It turned out, the federal investigation was a fake and was intentionally leaked to an eager reporter with the purpose of squeezing information from Gallagher, a son of a deceased criminal.
The movie’s plot touched on many issues involving how a journalist gathers a news report, verifies information, gets all sides of the story, as well as the ethical issue of publishing derogatory information on a private individual and the role of the press in informing the public. It’s a battle between an individual’s privacy and public interest.
In deciding libel cases, both reel and real, proof of malice is an important element before a guilty verdict is handed down. And in many countries, libel no longer exists.
The US Constitution, for instance, protects free speech and a free press under the First Amendment. Freedom of the press is also found in Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
Malice is very difficult to establish in court cases whether in the US or in the Philippines.
In 1967, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on two libel cases, saying malice ‘is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove.”
In one case, it upheld a libel conviction of a local court on The Saturday Evening Post which ran a game-fixing story on college football between Georgia and Alabama in 1962 based on an overheard phone conversation of two coaches.
A local court awarded $3 million to Georgia coach Wally Butts who sued the magazine for calling him and Alabama coach Paul Bryant “corrupt” in the opening line of the magazine story.
The US Supreme Court reduced the amount to $460,000. The fine contributed to the collapse of the publication.
In the same ruling, it overturned a former army general’s award of compensatory damages after he sued the Associated Press (AP) for libel. The wire news agency reported that he had “assumed command of the crowd” during a protest in a Mississippi campus that turned violent.
In both stories, the news organizations had some lapses but the court was more lenient on a private complainant, the football coach, than a public figure, a high-profile ex-army general.
It ruled that public figures should be treated differently from public officials when they sue for libel. They could only recover damages under findings of a tightly unreasonable conduct by reporters and publishers.
In the case of former general Edwin Walker against AP, he could not prove malice on the part of the news organization and the court found AP’s conduct reasonable because the reporter was writing a story considered to be “hot news” or a breaking story.
In contrast, The Post’s story on a football game-fixing scandal happened weeks after the actual game and the editors had done sloppy work on the editing and acted with reckless disregard, sensationalizing the story by using incendiary language.
Going back to the movie, there could be no malice when Carter, the reporter, wrote a story about Gallagher’s investigation because she did not know it was a fake investigation, and the information was deliberately leaked by the federal investigator. Carter was also reporting on a breaking news story.
The information was a legitimate news story. Perhaps, Carter had some lapses because she was not persistent in contacting Gallagher for his side on the story. She easily gave up when Gallagher failed to pick up the phone when she called.
The movie plot was almost similar to Rappler’s case. There could be no malice when it reported an investigation into the supposed links of businessman Wilfredo Keng with drugs and human trafficking operations in the country.
The news story was based on intelligence information provided by a law enforcement agency.
Moreover, the political situation in 2012 when the story was first written was different from the political environment in 2017.
In 2012, the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona was on trial in an impeachment court. He was finally removed in a 20-3 vote in May 2012.
Rappler also came out with a story on the same month, alleging the businessman with links to Corona had a shady background based on an intelligence report from the National Bureau of Investigation.
It was possible, back then, the NBI intentionally leaked the information to Rappler to help the government of then President Benigno Aquino III build up a case against Corona.
The NBI is under the justice department, led at that time by Leila de Lima, who was elected senator in 2016 but has been detained on drug-related charges since 2017.
Journalists in the Philippines are not strangers to leaked information from officials in government. Some officials, especially clever intelligence officers, usually choose “unsuspecting” journalists to leak information on purpose to get a desired effect.
There were also times when authorities used “friendly” or “gullible” editors or reporters in planting “fake” stories or “half-truths” for a political purpose.
In 2017, when Keng filed the libel case against Rappler, the political climate drastically changed. There was a new president who was out to get back at his critics, including Senator de Lima and Rappler.
Keng was now on the side of the government. In fact, he was able to get a certification from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) that cleared him of any involvement in illegal drug operations.
There were even some reports that showed Keng was a friend of a wealthy Chinese businessman who had donated funds for the construction of a mega drug rehabilitation center in Nueva Ecija, which was hardly used.
Rappler also had the misfortune of being in the center of a swirling controversy due to its critical reporting of Duterte’s war on drugs policy. It became very convenient for the government to use Rappler as an example of what could await critics of Rodrigo Duterte.
Many have argued that Keng is a private citizen who sought redress from an irresponsible news organization.
Even the president’s spokesman, Harry Roque, emphasized the popular leader had nothing to do with the court case.
But it has become a standard denial, like in the case of the closure of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest broadcast network. Roque desperately tried hard to deflect accusations the president was behind the shutdown.
However, it cannot be denied that Duterte has repeatedly said he was against the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN and has often criticized the news organization for the way it has been reporting on his administration.
In the same way, Duterte has repeatedly spoken against Rappler and even banned its reporters from covering his official public events not only in Malacañang but elsewhere.
The closure of ABS-CBN and the conviction of Maria Ressa are the clear and present dangers to freedom of the press and are an assault on democracy. These twin actions are designed to silence dissent.
Duterte has two years left in office and it is frightening what will happen next as elections draw near. Let’s hope there are still journalists who will continue to speak out and stand for truth when that time comes.