‘BE VIGILANT’: Media advocates, workers need to ‘wait and see’ protection bill’s intent – lawyer

While the proposed Media Workers’ Welfare Act seeks to protect media workers from unfair labor practices, it must be scrutinized even more to prevent the inclusion of provisions that could undermine editorial independence, according to human rights lawyer Chel Diokno.

By Joseph B.A. Marzan

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno on Friday said there should be greater scrutiny on a provision of a bill that seeks to protect media workers, which may penalize owners of media organizations over blocktime content.

Diokno spoke to Daily Guardian on Air to discuss House Bill (HB) No. 454, or the proposed Media Workers’ Welfare Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives last Nov 21, 2022.

Diokno observed that the bill plugs loopholes in Presidential Decree No. 442 (Labor Code of the Philippines, as amended), citing Section 10, which provides for security of tenure for media workers after 6 months of employment.

He also cited his experience as lawyer for some media workers who were his clients on cases involving issues on remaining on contractual employment status despite working for their companies for more than 6 months.

“[The bill] indicates that one of the bases of regularization [of media workers] is 6 months, even if it is interrupted. What had happened to other media outfits is that, before [an employee] reaches 6 months, they get terminated or their employment gets interrupted, and then they get hired again,” Diokno explained.

One of the provisions, particularly Section 12 of HB 454, provides for the liability of all contents released by the news organization, including those which are broadcasted or put out under blocktime or licensing agreements.

This may include Daily Guardian on Air, which airs over Aksyon Radyo Iloilo under a blocktime agreement.

Some media advocates and practitioners have rung alarm bells on this provision, calling it a form of ‘prior restraint’, but the Commission on Human Rights stated that news organizations should have responsibility over their content.

The 2008 case of Chavez vs. Gonzales, which deals with the ‘Hello Garci’ electoral controversy, defined prior restraint as “official governmental restrictions on the press or other forms of expression in advance of actual publication or dissemination.”

In his view, Diokno said that the proposed provision does not demonstrate prior restraint, but may be a point of controversy as blocktimers would usually be considered as separate entities from the broadcasters that host their content.

But he said that since this had already been passed in the lower house, discussions on the provision in the Senate should be well-observed.

“[Section 12] is like subsequent punishment where the blocktimer may say something, for example they may spread fake news and defamation, and the media entity may have gross negligence, then they may be liable,” Diokno shared.

“That provision may be a bit controversial because the usual practice is that the blocktimer is responsible for their content and the media owner would not be responsible. It would be good to see how the discussions would go when it reached Senate [deliberations],” he added.

But he also remarked that the bill should also address continued harassment against journalists, especially those who are under legal and life threats.

He suggested the adoption of the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), which is only currently present in environmental cases under A.M. No. 09-6-8-SC (Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases or RPEC).

Section 1, Rule 6 of the RPEC pertains to the SLAPP as a “legal action filed to harass, vex, exert undue pressure or stifle any legal recourse that any person, institution or the government has taken or may take in the enforcement of environmental laws, protection of the environment or assertion of environmental rights”.

“[Journalists] may not have money for lawyers, and may not even receive support from their employers or their management. It would be better if we take from the [RPEC] called the SLAPP suit, where if environmental activists get sued, they are protected [by SLAPP]. There should be an equivalent protection for media workers from harassment suits,” he said.

Diokno shared having conversations with friends who are members of the judiciary who have confided to him that there have been more cyberlibel cases under Republic Act No. 10175 (Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012) in recent years both against journalists and ordinary citizens.

He reiterated his stance that libel should be decriminalized and instead be meted with damages under civil law.

“The problem with imprisonment is that libel is being used by bigger people in power against smaller people including reporters. That is, of course, unjust, and must not happen,” he remarked.

“Libel and cyberlibel has a chilling effect, that even when you release a report that is true and has basis in fact, you would think twice because of a libel suit, without having resources to fight it in court. [It] really stops freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” he added.

Aside from the above-mentioned features, HB No. 454 also mandates the provision of Hazard Pay for journalists with assignments in dangerous places, as well as insurance and government benefits including from the Social Security System (SSS), Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), and Home Development Mutual Fund or the Pagtutulungan sa Kinabukasan, Ikaw, Bangko, Industriya at Gobyerno Fund (Pag-IBIG Fund).

Upon its passage, House Speaker Martin Romualdez said that the bill “highlights the importance we in the House give to promoting the welfare of media personnel and ensuring that the press remains free.”

HB No. 454 has been transmitted to the Senate since Nov 22, and has been referred to the Labor, Employment, and Human Resources Development and Public Information and Mass Media committees as of November 29, according to the upper chamber’s website.