Friday, May 8, 2009

A MATTER OF PUBLIC CONCERN

It is appalling to see the extent to which a public official would go in preventing, or penalizing, the release of information relating to the policies and functions of her office - information that should be open to public disclosure and scrutiny in the first place. Government Service and Insurance System (GSIS) Vice President Ella E. Valencerina did just that when she charged broadcast journalist Cecilia "Cheche" Lazaro and other ABC-CBN people for violation of Republic Act No. 4200, or the Anti-wire Tapping Act, after Lazaro's phone interview of Valencerina was allegedly aired without the latter's consent on the TV program "Probe" in November of last year.

The phone conversation between Lazaro and Valencerina is about the entitlement policy of the GSIS, which became part of a Probe episode entitled, "Perwisyong Benepisyo." The episode was obviously prompted by complaints against the policy from GSIS members, particularly public school teachers. Under the GSIS's entitlement policy, members can avail of their benefits based only on the amount of premiums paid by them, instead of their length of service in the government. Affected public school teachers are protesting this scheme because, according to them, they have been unfairly deprived of their benefits since the Department of Education, through which their premium payments were being coursed through, has not been regularly remitting payments for them.

Although Lazaro's claim that she sought Valencerina's permission to air the conversation prior to the interview would be her word against that of Valencerina, there apparently being no documented evidence to support it, that should be the least of Lazaro's concerns. What is essential here is that the information given by Valencerina is a matter of public concern and, therefore, is covered by the constitutional right to information. Valencerina was the vice president of GSIS - a government entity that is being sustained by public funds and taxpayers' money - at the time the phone conversation was made. The subject of the discussion concerns the entitlement policy of the GSIS that affects hundreds, if not thousands, of government employees who are members of the program.

The idea that the recording and broadcasting of the Lazaro-Valencerina telephone conversation, without Valencerina's consent, is a violation of the Anti-wire Tapping Act (AWTA) is downright preposterous and shows yet another attempt by a government functionary to curtail free speech. The AWTA only protects against unwanted recording and disclosure of private communications. Let me repeat that, private communications. Any communication made by an incumbent government official concerning the policies and functions of his or her office in response to an inquiry by the public, be they in the media or not, is public and not private communication. There is no expectation of privacy here, especially so in relation to the phone conversation at issue; Valencerina is expected to know that her conversation on a matter of public concern with a known journalist like Chehe Lazaro will be published. This is even more accentuated by the fact that Velencerino is also the head of GSIS's Public Relations and Communications Office.

It is also worth mentioning here that under Section 4 (e) of Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Employees, public officials are required to "provide information of their policies and procedures in clear and understandable language" and "ensure openness of information." Thus, when Valencerina responded to Lazaro's telephone interview she was clearly acting in the performance of her duties as vice president and communications officer of GSIS. Again, to disabuse the minds of those who will try to seek refuge on the limitations for the disclosure of official information, the information she gave concerns a policy of her agency that affects the entitlement to benefits of several government employees, and not matters of security or personal information of individuals.

Unmasked of its pretentions, the clear purpose of this suit against Chehe Lazaro and company is retribution and attack against press freedom. If Valencerina did not like the exposure of her agency's questionable policy and the airing of grievances against it, the solution is not to attack free speech but to sit down with the stakeholders - whom she is duty-bound to serve - and either defend the soundness of the policy or come up with a mutually acceptable solution. Her action only exacerbated the situation and exposed her pettiness.

4 comments:

  1. On the wiretapping case against Ms. Cheche Lazaro


    “When the Pasay City Court issued a warrant of arrest against Ms. Cheche Lazaro, I initially opted not to issue a statement. I thought there was nothing more to say except, perhaps, to let the wheels of justice take its usual turn. My silence was a gesture of respect for the system.

    “However, after hearing and reading the statements made by the camp of Ms. Lazaro in the news, I feel compelled to say something, without delving further in the case – for this is the sole responsibility of the officers of the court – but to clarify the false impressions that were peddled in the media.

    “First, I want to make it clear that the Government Service Insurance System is in no way involved in the case of Violation of the Anti-Wiretapping Act which I have filed against Ms. Lazaro. I filed the case before the Pasay City Regional Trial Court on my own volition, without any instruction or direction from my superiors in the GSIS.

    “It is a case arising from my feeling that my right to privacy, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, has been violated. I am, after all, entitled to my rights, in this case, Section 3 of the Bill of Rights, which states: ‘The privacy of communications and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise as prescribed by law.’

    “Contrary to what the camp of Ms. Lazaro has been quoted as saying, this is not media harassment. I have dealt with countless media persons and those I have met and those who know me can attest that I am the last person capable of harassing members of the press.

    “The case, above all, raises the timely question: Are the media allowed to violate the individual rights of a person? I was asking the court if the media could simply call you up, record your conversation, and broadcast it for the entire world to hear; all these, without your knowledge, much less, your permission.

    “There is no grand conspiracy. There are no devious schemes. Definitely, there is no concerted effort to stifle press freedom. I pursued my rights, taking the route of due process, without the need to engage in a publicity stunt.

    “There is, however, a silver lining to the already tense predicament I am in for going after an influential broadcast journalist. Somehow, I received and continue to receive numerous encouragements from, surprisingly, members from the media.

    “Apparently, there are many media persons who are as interested as I am to understand the parameters of honest and fair methods of gathering news. Unlike Ms. Lazaro, they are not A-list TV journalists. Most of them are reporters who go to their beats daily, send out summaries to desks, and file stories before deadlines. These are hard-working journalists who want to know: does the fame and status give Ms. Lazaro the immunity to break journalism ethics and break the law? Does the stature of being a ‘veteran broadcast journalist’ and journalism profession let one off the hook?

    “Among journalists, this case will enable the profession to define, in tangible terms, the Philippine Journalist's Code of Ethics, which among others, require journalists to ‘not violate confidential information or material given her in the exercise of her calling" and "resort only to fair and honest methods in her effort to obtain news, photographs and/or documents and properly identify herself as a representative of the press when obtaining any personal interview intended for publication or airing."

    “I am a believer of the significant role journalists play in a democratic system. They are the watchmen, protecting us from wrongdoings taking place both in government and private sectors. But even journalists are not infallible. They can have their share of wrongdoings. And when journalists do wrong, how can we – especially private individuals – protect ourselves from them?”




    ELLA E. VALENCERINA

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  2. Thank you anonymous for posting the statement of Ms. Ella Valencerina. In the interest balance and fairness, I will likewise post it on the main page of my blog. However, this still does not answer the fact that Ms. Valencerina is a public official when she answered Ms. Lazaro's interview regarding GSIS policy of entitlement, and she was interviewed about what she had to say about it. Therefore, such communication does not enjoy a private or confidential status. The claim of privacy is misplaced.

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  3. I am not a lawyer, that much I can say. But I know it is best that we leave the matter of wiretapping to the court handling the case.

    While I am not a lawyer, I was a journalist. And If you read Lazaro's affidavit, it was clear that we broke the rules of journalism. While she claimed telling Valencerina that the conversation was being recorded, Lazaro promised not to air it. "Off the record," in journalism parlance. But Lazaro did air it.

    Ms. Valencerina said pointed out what many die-hard supporters of LAzaro chose to ignore: “These hard-working journalists want to know: Does the fame and status give Ms. Lazaro the immunity to break journalism ethics?"

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  4. I have not read Lazaro's affidavit, and if indeed she gave her word not to air the interview, you're right she violated an ethical rule for journalists, but to charge her of violating the anti-wire tapping law is something different.

    Valencerina is probably not being used as a pawn or not after free speech - we don't know - but charging someone with a criminal case for airing an interview about something that should be a public concern, and should be made public, in the first place certainly raises a lot of question.

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