TV coverage of Maguindanao massacre trial

'Trial by publicity'
BABE'S EYE VIEW By Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) Updated November 21, 2010

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There is absolutely no question the “animals” who are responsible for the Maguindanao massacre should be put to sleep permanently. No one will argue how despicable and brazen this gruesome crime was committed. To put it bluntly, the murderers simply had a total disregard for human life and a wanton display of the “arrogance of power.” If the Supreme Court makes an exception to the nine-year-old “rule” prohibiting the live airing of court trials, then the Maguindanao massacre trial will perhaps be the first sensational case to be accorded full media coverage in recent history. The only two other instances one can think of that have received widespread media interest and coverage were the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals from 1945 to 1947, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995 dubbed as the “Trial of the Century.”

But while the O.J. Simpson trials riveted millions worldwide due to the “entertainment value” afforded by the elements of sex, passion, murder and celebrity thrown in, it was really the Nuremberg trials — conducted by an international military tribunal in Germany for the atrocities committed by Nazi officials (still alive at the time of the trials) such as Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess — that had more impact because the issue was highly emotional for people across nations and continents. Critics however said the trials became venues for vengeance and argued that the military tribunal composed of judges from the “Allied nations” had no legal basis to try the defendants.

Understandably, Holocaust survivors and Jews all over the world had a contrary opinion because the trials underscored their struggle for justice against a most gruesome genocide of unimaginable scale with rapes, torture, murder, looting and other “crimes against humanity” committed by the Nazis. Having the proceedings televised for the whole world to see also became an opportunity to generate worldwide sympathy for the Jews and aroused collective anger against the defendants.

There is however also the underlying question of due process and the rule of law. The Supreme Court’s basis for disallowing the live coverage of trials stems from the tenet that even the accused also have rights, and that their rights should take precedence over press freedom and the public’s right to know. President Noynoy Aquino has lent his voice to those who feel the proceedings should be televised, rationalizing that the coverage would be educational for Filipinos and would help them understand what transpired, perhaps in the sense that the chronology of events will be unraveled in the process.

Still others are of the opinion that if Senate hearings and investigations can be televised, then why not a high profile case like the Maguindanao massacre? While it is true that people have a certain degree of distrust against our justice system, allowing live coverage of the trial will only heighten emotions and could lead to the degeneration of the entire proceedings into a “mob rule.” On the other hand, allowing video cameras in the court will most likely inspire the lawyers from both sides to put on their “best behavior” and display good judicial standards. 

But the fact of the matter is, allowing live coverage also has its downside. First of all, a defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise, and showing the faces of the defendants especially the so-called minor characters could prejudice their chances since people could assume they are already guilty by just being indicted. Worse, exposing the identities of these low-level accused before the cameras might submit their families to undue biases and even humiliation in the long run. And as correctly pointed out by DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima, televised coverage could undermine the rule of exclusion wherein witnesses set to testify should not see the testimony of others.

What could even be more problematic is if the conclusions made by the general public (such as prison terms and other penalties for those who will be proven guilty) will vary from the decision of the judge. After all, we Pinoys can be highly emotional — a trait which many of us inherited from our former colonial masters, the Spaniards. And then of course there is the added pressure of knowing that the whole world will be watching the entire proceedings and any perceived judicial “mistake” could trigger an uproar just like what happened at the impeachment proceedings of former President Joseph Estrada.

The former president allowed himself to go through the Constitutional process with the whole proceedings covered live on nationwide television. But when the people who were watching it didn’t like the majority decision of the senator-judges not to open the second envelope — something which was entirely legal and according to procedure — the prosecutors walked out on cue, abruptly stopping the impeachment trial. Shortly after, another people power took place but this time the unimpressed international media described it as a “mob rule.” We all know the consequences after that: Constitutional disruption that led to an unprecedented nine-year rule of Gloria Arroyo. 

Clearly, the Supreme Court must weigh its decision carefully and balance competing considerations “without fear or favor.” It is no coincidence that justice is symbolized by a blindfolded lady holding up balanced scales precisely because decisions must not be swayed by simple perceptions which, unfortunately, many Filipinos are guilty of. Very often in this country, a person is already considered guilty until proven otherwise simply because of perception. If we really want justice to prevail then the simple fact remains: We must all be guided by the rule of law and not by the rule of the mob.

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