Bill penalizing campus press freedom violations refiled

A nine-year-old bill seeking to uphold campus press freedom is again kept at bay at the House of Representatives after its first reading in February.

Sponsored by Kabataan Party-list representative Sarah Elago, House Bill 319, or the Campus Press Freedom (CPF) Act, seeks to address reported loopholes in the current Campus Journalism Act (CJA) of 1991 that allow threats against the campus press to fly under the radar. 

The technical working group (TWG), which is tasked to review the bill before its second reading, initially planned to conduct consultations with stakeholders before Congress resumed session this May. 

However, discussions on the bill have been stalled as the House realigned its agenda to cope with the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Campus Press Freedom Act has not appeared on the House’s calendar as of writing.

With the chance of getting shelved again, Sen. Leila de Lima filed a counterpart bill in the Senate on May 12. 

Senate Bill 1524 carries the same objectives and penalty provisions found in Elago’s version apart from differences on independence and funding of student publications in the elementary and secondary levels. 

Both measures intend to repeal the enforced Campus Journalism Act. 

Improvements sought     

The CPF Bill, in both the House and Senate versions, aims to place protective measures for students through penalizing its offenders, either imposing fines or imprisonment. 

A fine ranging from P100,000 to P200,000, imprisonment of one to five years, or both, shall be charged on violators,  as determined by courts. 

The law’s implementing agencies will also provide legal assistance to student journalists if the need arises.

However, the House and Senate versions of the CPF bill have different takes on the role of its moderators. 

In the House version, the role of advisers will be limited to a defined concept of “technical guidance.” Moderators can no longer weaponize their authority, especially on secondary school publications where their assistance is required.

“Ang sinusulong ng CPF ay bigyan nang malinaw na depinisyon ang technical guidance, tiyakin na talagang ang role ng adviser ay hanggang doon lamang at siguraduhin din na mananagot sa ilalim ng ating batas ang lalabag sa campus press freedom,” Elago said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Senate version allows school authorities to prevent the publication of materials they deem libelous, oppressive, or against the accepted ethical standards of journalism. It also subjects school administrators to account for and monitor the publication’s expenses. 

The senate bill also proposes campus press activities should not affect the regular schooling of student journalists on the basic education level. 

Replacing an ineffective law

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) has been consistently advocating for the repeal of CJA since 1996

“The CJA of 1991 has serious flaws that jeopardize campus press freedom. The law is usually used against campus journalists instead of protecting their rights as members of an independent working press,” CEGP said in its position paper.

This weakness of the CJA hinders more on the operations of high school student publications, Elago said, due to publication advisers overstepping their role of providing technical guidance. 

Its implementing rules and regulations (IRR) allow technical moderators to determine the editorial policies of the publication. A special parental authority found in the IRR makes them fully responsible for the contents of the publication that are written by students, most of whom are minors.

This has led to a hold order on publication materials that reportedly do not align with school policies and their administrations’  beliefs. 

According to CEGP, repressive actions and policies like this are a common problem for the campus press in the country. 

“School administrators almost always want to prevent student publications to publish critical news and analysis on school policies. The aim of these violations is to tame the progressive and critical nature of student publications,” the group said.

A bill long overdue

Kabataan Partylist first filed the Campus Press Freedom Act in 2011, but was left pending at the committee level. They refiled the bill in 2013 and 2016, only to suffer the same fate. 

Sen. De Lima’s senate version of the CPF bill filed in 2018 was also stalled after its first reading.

Asked on the bill’s chances of finally lapsing into law, Elago said that numerous social issues plaguing our country signal the necessity and urgency for the bill’s passage.

“Napakamakapangyarihan ng campus press kung magagamit ang kanyang potensiyal sa pagtataas ng awareness tungkol sa mahahalagang isyung panlipunan,” Elago added.

Meanwhile, De Lima said that the recent passage of Republic Act 11440 declaring July 29 as National Campus Press Freedom Day is rather ironic as attacks on the campus press are still allowed to exist.

“By repealing the present law, and replacing with a law that genuinely upholds campus freedom, we can once again reclaim campus journalism as it once were—an unbiased, untainted avenue of self-expression, critical and creative thinking, and a beacon of nationalism and democracy,” De Lima added.

Marred with funding loopholes and conflicting provisions, the 29-year-old Campus Journalism Act continues to stifle high school publications as their editorial independence remains at gunpoint.

This is Part 1 of a two-part story on the Campus Press Freedom Act. 

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