The works of investigative journalists have enabled the porousness of today’s social media or the Internet in general in creating a virtually open source community.
Professor Sheila S. Coronel, Director of the Toni Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism of Columbia University, led an afternoon of interactive and interesting conversation last March 18 at the University of Toronto OISE with a very enlightening presentation on how some of the world’s controversial leaders have been brought down by combing out the vastness of the sea of information about their certain tendencies, weaknesses and penchant for displaying their caché of ill-gotten wealth. Whether it was the number of mansions, luxurious Bentley cars and Patek Philippe watches, or collection of Christian Louboutin and other brands of the most expensive shoes, Prof. Coronel guided the audience through several websites and tools investigative journalists use in tracking down such brazen display of corruption by publicly elected officials or by their wives.
Had my friend, Jesuit priest Terrence Fay, who teaches at the University of Toronto St. Michael’s College and celebrates the 8:30 mass every Sunday morning at our Lady of Lourdes Church on Sherbourne St., stayed a little longer to listen to Prof. Coronel, he would have been amazed by the diminutive Filipino woman as she spoke on how to bring down the powerful and corrupt through the ingenuity of investigative reporting. Our cultural weakness of starting on time and dwelling on unnecessarily long and tedious introductory remarks prevented Fr. Fay from staying, as he also had another book launch to attend that afternoon.
But today’s almost unlimited freedom of the Internet or free press is not without some drawbacks. Censorship is growing through various mechanisms of repression—from “deep packet inspection” hardware that can track unencrypted emails sent, websites and blog posts visited, to the more obvious regulation by government legislation. The Philippines’ newly-minted Cybercrime Prevention Law is one example of how the government can diminish freedom of expression by having the ability to prosecute criminal libel on the pretext of preventing child crimes or sex trafficking in cyberspace. All these attempts are aimed in slowing down the Internet for target users or communities such as investigative journalists, writers and whistleblowers.
In extreme instances where the state or its agents pay lip service to the notion of freedom of the press, journalists and government critics become easy prey of extra-judicial executions and disappearances. The Philippines ranks third in the world among countries with the highest number of journalists killed in this increasingly dangerous line of work.
Also at the heart of the ongoing dichotomy between unfettered freedom of information on one hand and regulation or restriction on the other is the long-standing issue of the individual’s right to privacy. Tabloid journalists by far are the most notorious in sacrificing accuracy and the personal privacy of their subjects in order to boost sales.
In the United States where there is no express constitutional right to privacy, the courts have fashioned out decisions protecting specific aspects of the Bill of Rights such as privacy of beliefs, protection of the home and persons against unreasonable searches, or the privilege against self-incrimination. There is continuing division among justices of the US Supreme Court on the question of a constitutional protection for privacy in ways not expressly provided in the Bill of Rights.
Justices belonging to the school of originalists like Scalia and Thomas have argued that no such general right of privacy exists. On the other hand, other justices argued for a broader reading of the Constitution and took the position of a more liberal interpretation, thus in many ways guarantee a fairly broad right of privacy.
In addition, a legal test of expectation of privacy has been developed over the years in the application of the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A long line of precedents has also established that users of the Internet, particularly Google’s Gmail, lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in messages sent using the service. These legal arguments arose out of proceedings against Google in regard of the US Federal Wiretap Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and states’ Invasion of Privacy Acts, making email privacy as nearly impossible.
A guaranteed zone of privacy appears being gradually encroached upon, as further evidenced by Assange’s Wikileaks or Snowden’s leaks about NSA’s eavesdropping and collection of phone data on Americans and some world leaders. With a highly unregulated Internet and a porous social media, anyone nowadays can be a whistleblower or a crusader for the truth. The concept of privacy has become an anachronism in this day and age of computing.
While the right to privacy or at least the expectation of privacy has been losing its lustre in this electronic age, journalists or those who are in the business of investigating the truth are still subject to standards of ethics and of good practice. It’s not just privacy or the search for the truth that matters. Take for example what happened during the exchange after Prof. Coronel had finished her presentation.
Someone from the audience asked Prof. Coronel what should be done when certain journalists have crossed the line of decency and civility in news reporting and opinion writing. People from the back reacted with disconcerting murmurs and jeers about the current mudslinging in the local community press in Toronto.
While the question was not directly related to the ongoing conversation, it brings about legitimate concerns about ethical news reporting and expectations of fairness and civility. Simply put: it is about good manners. This is especially important when a reporter considers the amount of harm that could be caused to the subject of his or her story, or even to the community at large.
One of the ethical standards every journalist or reporter must uphold is the principle of harm limitation. Does everything a reporter has learned in the investigation of the subject need to be disclosed, and if so, how much? A reporter must also weigh the negative consequences of full disclosure.
The truth is not a runaway train. A reporter must disclose the truth but not necessarily in a way that affects others adversely. Or a reporter must be sensitive with the language he uses and must show good taste in reporting.
It was US President Theodore Roosevelt who popularized the term “muckraker” in a 1906 speech when he acknowledged that "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck..."
Roosevelt stressed the social benefit of investigative muckraking reporting, but at the same time, he cautioned against the pitfalls of keeping attention only on the mud. He said: “There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”
These are words that sound relevant to the current crisis of incivility or what many are calling “mudslinging” among members of the Toronto Filipino community press. The fact is this atmosphere of offensiveness is the handiwork of only one reporter, which has spawned a number of unnecessary libel suits against him, and his publisher by extension, by those who felt wronged and defamed. Even a Filipino sitting senator in the Canadian Parliament and his wife have joined the circus, forgetting that a public figure like him is not insulated or immune from criticism, even for work outside the confines of the Parliament.
In sum, this crisis in our community reflects on us all. It shows the level of maturity of our community leaders, the professionalism of our so-called local journalists, and the “egg-shell” protective lining of their egos. If one salvo of criticism would easily shatter their self-image, then they should avoid the public limelight where the most private account of human affairs could be dissected and disseminated like perennial fodder to a gossiping crowd.
The investigative journalists in our midst have gone berserk by exposing what they believe could destroy some individuals in our community, without regard to the total harm their reportage could cause. Two months from now and just in time with the celebration of Philippine independence day, leaders from every corner of our community would be appealing from their own soap boxes for support to the same cultural activities that brought this crisis upon the community: beauty pageants and contests. Meanwhile, the litigants in the various libel suits will continue testing the limits of freedom of expression, as if the courts are the best venue to redress their bruised egos.
Perhaps, if our journalists can be the true watchdogs of our community, they should train their investigative skills on the real and substantial impact of activities like beauty contests in promoting and enriching our cultural heritage. Instead of coddling the promoters of these inanities and simply requiring them to show transparency in the accounting of the monies they raised.
What have these beauty contests contributed in conveying our culture to our Filipino community in Toronto and the Canadian society at large? So far, in addition to treating our women as commodities, we also take pride in being sour dueling libelists, which keeps us in the muck, and only brings utter disgrace to our rich heritage and culture.