By J. Regalado E. Maambong
if occasionally, tension between judges and journalists occur and
sometimes reach an all-time high. This, in spite of the fact that
journalists today are considerably more conservative, thoughtful and
professional in their reporting. In fact, it is now extremely
rare for a journalist to identify a rape victim and identification is
frowned upon by almost all news organizations. Thus, absent much
data, most newspaper coverage of trials appear incomplete and
anti-sensational that it borders on boring, even though court
proceedings are by law open to the public and court records are
public records. However, courts have been nearly uniform in turning
back any exercise of prior restraint on reporting except for the
prohibition of cameras and television coverage in the courtroom,
while courts are in session.
address such tension, the Supreme Court through the Philippine
Judicial Academy formed a subcommittee on judiciary-media relations.
It produced a Judiciary-Media Relations Manual which is still pending
approval. What the Manual seeks to defuse is the tension which
sometimes exist between judges and journalists or reporters, and
thereby hopefully build better relationships.
going over data and inputs put forward by resource persons and
consultants, the problem may be expressed in the following manner.
complain that reporters, especially those in television,
sensationalize their stories to sell newspapers or attract viewers
and that the facts in their stories are usually wrong. This applies
to columnists as well who normally express opinions diametrically
opposed to rulings of the court, thus, making it appear in the eyes
of the reading public that the court did wrong. There is also a claim
that few journalists understand legal proceedings and many have no
respect for privacy rules.
is one side of the coin. By contrast, reporters contend that some
judges try to control and limit information about their cases. They
say that some overly strict judges improperly place their concerns
about a fair trial over the rights of free speech, free press, and an
open court process.
this conflict in mind, there is a need to gain a better understanding
of what is happening and why, otherwise the reading public will
become more confused than informed.
increasing number of legal conflicts between journalists trying to
cover courts, and court officials trying to deny access to
proceedings or information, is significant. If commentaries of
columnists are added, we have a situation in our hands and
confrontation between journalists and court officials will rise.
At the extreme, court decisions are put in doubt because of unjust
criticism. The power of media in forming public opinion cannot
cause of the problem lies on both sides. On the side of
judges, it is a problem of turf. Judges, as well as lawyers,
are used to being in control. When reporters are involved,
judges lose control of the interpretation of information once given.
This is a scary situation to many judges. So they overreact, since
most judges have no idea about journalists or how journalists operate
or what they need.
on the journalism side of things, there is a problem too. Not all
journalists are from reputable broadsheets or local television or
radio stations. Some are tabloid journalists or reporters who
have no ethics and neither practice any care to follow the rules of
the journalism profession. Most journalists do not understand
the law or court processes.
from this major disconnection, to judges, process and procedure are
of utmost importance, whereas to journalists outcome or results are
what matters most.
be sure, therefore, the subcommittee felt the need for a continuing
dialogue – the first one was held in Cebu City - to
educate journalists about the nuts and bolts of covering courts.
Judges and lawyer-journalists contributed in that effort. Judges were
informed that there is nothing wrong if judges are media friendly by
just following the law and rules on access to courts and judicial
proceedings, and not simply ignore the law.
while most journalists try to do the right thing, there is a need for
them to be properly equipped with the knowledge and resources to
adequately cover courts and legal issues, to address the sentiment
echoed by many judges.
journalists covering courts are not lawyers. In fact, the court beat
at many newspapers and television or radio stations is an entry level
position filled by reporters straight out of journalism school, if
they came out from such school at all.
one time, a prosecutor could not help but berate a cub reporter who
asked: “If the court finds him not guilty, will you appeal?”
How could the prosecution appeal? Apparently, the reporter does not
know the elementary principle of “double jeopardy.”
Something like this could damage beyond repair the credibility of all
journalists who cover the courts. But this will always happen because
the sad truth is that newspapers, television and radio stations
do not exert effort to educate their reporters as to the intricacies
of the legal system. There are, of course, other reasons. Due to
staffing reductions, journalists have to write more articles in a
shorter period of time, even on topics beyond their expertise. Budget
cuts prevent news gathering organizations from sending journalists
and reporters to educational workshops and seminars.
the problem is there and it has to be met head-on because judges must
not forget that journalists have the right, even a responsibility, to
cover the courts and turn the spotlight on operations and actions of
the court. Courtrooms are public, political institutions
and, absent special and limited circumstances, the courthouse should
be open to the public at all times. And since, most of the time, the
public cannot be in the courtroom to see what is happening, so the
job rests with the news media. It is, of course, unfair to attribute
assaults on judges to incorrect media reporting. Judges are pretty
much like journalists. Their jobs carry high risks. It is not a
desirable theory to slander the deceased, but there are cases where
the aggrieved person could not get justice from the judiciary or
fairness from the press and thus resort to violence is a way of
striking back at actual or conceived corruption or ineptness.
Fourteen judges have been killed since 1991, the last two in 2007.
But judges are not as endangered as journalists 54 of whom have been
gunned down since 1986. The killing can be job-related and yet not
for what the judge or journalist was bound to do under oath or work
together scores of judges and journalists all over the country to
dialogue in a series of day-long workshops to be conducted regularly
by the Philippine Judicial Academy and institutional sponsors is
certainly an ambitious project but it would go a long way, and it has
been started. It is a welcome relief to note that judges are
performing well in the difficult task of protecting the rights of
media vis-à-vis the right of the parties on trial, and
the media has responded with fair criticism of judicial actuations.
develop relations further, it was the consensus of the subcommittee
that judges should help facilitate the goal of media to get the news,
wherever possible. It was suggested that every judge should know the
beat reporters who cover their courts by introducing himself or
herself and his or her clerk to them when the occasion arises.
important goal of the judiciary is to protect the integrity of the
court. But it is not a good way to achieve this laudable goal by
ignoring and avoiding media at all cost simply because of the risk
that media might become uncontrollable. Judges need to recognize that
the news media can actually be beneficial to the administration of
justice. Journalists can achieve goals that judges cannot, simply by
turning the spotlight on the problem. Unjust criticism by a powerful
media can also destroy a judge or damage beyond repair the integrity
of the court.
bottom line is that judges should realize that the news media are not
their enemy, but in the same way, not their friend either. But
numerous examples abound showing news media advocating for judges and
the courts, and judges have a no better ally in exposing unjust
criticisms and attacks on the independence of the judiciary than the
But there should be
no mistake about it. The media is there to be a watchdog in much the
same way as judges are the gatekeepers of the courts. This means that
media will expose corruption or problems within the courts. We
cannot avoid media inquiries and stories that, to judges,
seem wrongheaded or even improper, if not embarrassing. But this
conflict is not new. We have to live with it. A legitimate news story
as a newswriting event may appear unfair to a judge or court but
publication cannot be suppressed. On the bright side,
media can use the same means to show how the courts are being
unfairly and unjustly attacked.
on their own initiative, can definitely improve media coverage of the
courts with a view towards good public relations as well as build
public confidence in our courts.
one thing, there are very basic things that judges in every
jurisdiction – large and small – can do to improve
the accuracy of the stories that are written about them and the
from introducing one’s self to the journalists, a judge can
tell them how the court operates, how to best access court records,
and the basic rules the court has in place.
media conference is a good suggestion where reporters are invited to
a day-long program with judges and lawyers to discuss how to better
work together. These are wonderful opportunities to forge
relationships and develop a dialogue.
as a matter of course also police their own ranks. Admittedly, it is
to their credit that they follow a strict code of journalism and
unwritten rules of excellence and integrity, not to mention proper
responsibility in reportage. But to be sure, both sides deserve some
blame. Still, news organizations supported by judges must conduct
media-related programs and provide scholarships to reporters and
editors to educate about the role of judges, the legal process,
constitutional boundaries, and the rights and responsibilities of
journalists. The programs, of course, must be taught by judges,
lawyers and seasoned legal journalists, to make them more credible.
must attend seminars as well on how to deal with news media
especially in high profile matters and in the proper reaction of
judges to unjust criticisms. And, most importantly, judges can
improve tremendously media coverage by issuing legally correct,
reasoned and well-organized decisions. By helping reporters,
read and understand a very difficult decision without resorting to
outside experts like lawyers in the case or law professors,
journalists are given the time to report and write sensibly about the
case without reading voluminous records and briefs. Helping
journalists gain a better understanding of facts and arguments do not
run counter to ethical prohibitions on judicial conduct and is never
a bad thing.
all, building bridges between judges and journalists result in
accurate public information towards a better administration of