When Privileged Communications Land You in Hot Soup

Arab News

When Privileged Communications Land You in Hot Soup

by Manuel L. Quezon III


When Prince Charles told Camilla Parker-Bowles that he wanted to be reincarnated as her tampon, it made the tabloid news — thanks to illegally intercepted cell phone conversations. Linda Tripp’s surreptitious recordings of conversations with Monica Lewinsky proved embarrassing both to Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton.

In the case of Prince Charles, the interception of his calls led to a personally embarrassing, but politically inconsequential, media frenzy; in the case of Bill Clinton, it influenced both public perception and the legal development of his impeachment case.

On May 21, 2001, the American Supreme Court ruled (as summarized by an American legal journal) “that a news organization cannot be punished for disseminating the truthful contents of an illegally recorded telephone-conversation as long as the information is in the public interest and the news organization did not participate in the interception”.

Vir Sanghvi writes of an assumption by many Indian and Pakistani journalists that “the people have a right to know what important people say in private.” Until, that is, the tables were turned on the journalists. He gives as an example an incident in which “…many of those who had written editorials arguing that it was quite okay to tape private conversations were invited to breakfast by Gen. Musharraf in Agra. Though a TV crew was clearly visible, the editors seem to have decided that the breakfast was only being recorded for PTV. So, a significant number groveled before the general, agreeing with his every assertion and genuflecting before his jackboots.”

Sanghvi continues, deliciously, that, “To their horror, the entire breakfast meeting was telecast on Star News within an hour. As their craven behavior was shown to their incredulous and outraged friends and readers in India, many of the editors looked for excuses. This was a private meeting, they thundered, how dare Musharraf tape it without our knowledge? In fact, the General had done no such thing; the TV crew was in the center of the room…”

In the Philippines, where I am, media is now wrestling with what to do with recorded conversations that supposedly indicate — if not explicitly illegal, then questionable, if not outright immoral — conversations concerning electoral results, between the President of the Philippines, her allies, and an official said to belong to the country’s chief electoral authority. This is what happened: Apparently having heard that the political opposition was in possession of the tapes, the president’s spokesman held a press conference and played what he said were two versions of the tape. An authentic one, and a doctored one which maliciously implied the president was in cahoots with election officials to alter the results.

Then, after not only playing the two recordings, but after having facilitated the media’s obtaining copies of the tapes, the government began to get nervous when the tapes got wide airplay on radio and television, with newspapers publishing transcripts, as well. Suddenly, the government remembered there was a law penalizing the possession and distribution of wiretapped material (as the conversations were obviously obtained through surreptitious means). The Philippines’ Secretary of Justice threatened media outfits with arrest and the broadcasting authority of the country sent a stiff warning to radio and TV stations that their permits to operate could be summarily revoked for broadcasting the contents of the tapes.

Media, in the face of such threats, caved in. The genie, however, had already escaped from the bottle, no thanks to the bottle having been uncorked by the government itself. Journalists and ordinary citizens began to find ways to transmit the tapes, now in digital format, over the Internet, either by posting transcripts on blogs, or distributing the files through peer-to-peer programs such as BitTorrent. The government continued to breath fire until one official whose mandate covers the Internet, simply stated that existing Philippine law lacks provisions applicable to the transmission, sharing, or discussion of illicitly obtained wiretap recordings.

Then again, the Philippine government could simply have looked back to the 1970s, when illegally obtained recordings of then-president Ferdinand Marcos cooing, singing, and making love to a B-movie American actress named Dovie Beams was obtained and broadcast by oppositionists, or when, after the assassination of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino in 1983, Marcos’ government banned foreign broadcasts that inquired into the circumstances of the murder. Filipinos simply obtained Betamax tapes of Japanese and American broadcasts and smuggled them from home to home.

It is human nature to be morbidly curious about the private goings-on of people in power, just as it is politically imperative for governments to restrict public access to such things. Some governments manage information (from the point of view of governments) better than others. But one thing is certain, when the public’s appetite is whetted by the knowledge that such information exists, it will find ways to get it.

What is taking place is a tug-of-war involving access to information; and what is making it a losing proposition for the Philippine government is that it made the tactical decision to come forward with information embarrassing to itself, only to discover by doing so it lost control over the issue.

It is a cautionary tale that princes and presidents have learned at great cost before, but which the princes and presidents of today seem condemned to have to learn again, the hard way.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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