“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” –Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize awardee
In essence, the University of the East (UE) administration has abolished the Dawn, the official student publication.
This was the first time in decades that the Dawn has not released an issue for the opening of the schoolyear. Students and other members of the UE community were asking the expected questions, “Nasaan ang Dawn? Bakit walang release ang Dawn?” However, almost everyone had the same speculation: it was a sanction for releasing an “offensive” lampoon issue followed by very critical opinion pieces.
What happened was a systematic crack down on the publication. After the lampoon issue was released November last year, the Dawn received a “collective statement” from the UE-Manila university student council. The statement was a written complaint against the publication, which, the council claimed, released an issue that was a “great disrespect to UE…a great damage to our image.”
For three weeks in December, the Dawn, a weekly publication, was not able to circulate copies. There was no clarification whether the fund was withheld or not. The publication’s operations were paralyzed when 2011 ended.
Around this time, the editor in chief of The Dawn was no longer reporting to the editorial board. She was able to withdraw around P120, 000 from the Dawn account. However, she left an unpaid obligation of P33, 000 to the contracted printer and the staffers were not able to receive their honoraria. She also dropped all her classes this semester and could not be reached.
To prevent the “disappearance” of the editors in chief who were given discretion over the fund, the administration had to set up measures, said UE President Esther Albano-Garcia in an open letter to the students. In March this year, the administration met with the student councils of both UE Manila and Caloocan, and the Dawn editorial board. It was agreed upon in this meeting that the university would collect the fund (as per previous practice, the Dawn publication fee, which is P50 per student, will be included in the list of miscellaneous fees to be paid upon registration) to be disbursed according to set guidelines.
But on March 27, Garcia released an open letter to the UE students, stating that it is her “final decision that the university will no longer collect the Dawn fee starting this Summer 2012.” She said the Dawn representatives in the meeting showed sincerity in complying with the plan (the university will collect the fund but the disbursement will be according to guidelines agreed upon by the administration, councils and editorial board), but the March 12-18 articles “essayed their aversion to the proposal.”
This was her sole reason for imposing a manual collection scheme, in which the Dawn staff, composed of more or less 20 individuals, will have to collect P50 from each of the more than 6,000 students in both campuses of UE. This impossible task has effectively crippled the institution. In the first semester, less than 100 students paid the publication fee, amounting to only around P3,000, only 0.3 percent of the usual collection.
The Dawn was still able to publish a summer issue because they still have left-over funds (around P300,000 cumulative fund left from the previous terms). When the summer issue was released on May 14, the Student Affairs Office (SAO) informed the staffers through a letter that the term of the ad interim editor in chief has ended on March 31. Therefore, the staff should not have released a summer issue because from March 31 onwards, nobody in the ad interim editorial board has the “legal personality…to carry out any other activities in connection with the Dawn,” the administration claimed.
The statement that the term of the ad interim editor in chief has ended on March 31 was questionable, because according to the “Policy Guidelines of the Total Student Care Program: On Matters Concerning Student Publication,” a document governing the affairs of the UE student publications, the term of the editor-in-chief shall be limited to one school year and one summer. Hence, the term of the interim editor in chief should have ended after the summer term, or beyond March 31.
It was also last summer that the staffers were blocked from enrolling because of the administrative case. They were allowed to enlist subjects only after they signed a waiver, in which it was stated that they are enrolled until the administration releases a decision that is not in their favor.
On June 4, the first day of classes in UE, no Dawn was circulated. There was no editorial board.
On July 23, the SAO administered a “qualifying examination” for all staffers. Anyone who wishes to be part of the Dawn must pass the exam. It was curious, however, that even those who already passed the exam a year or years before must also take the test. By the publication’s practice, staffers who already passed the test need not retake the exam.
The members of the ad interim editorial board were not allowed to take the exam because of a pending case regarding the lampoon issue. In essence, they were expelled from the publication.
The administration then informed the staffers that nobody from the 32 students who took the exam passed the test. They did not post results. There was no transparency, just the cold, definite statement that nobody passed the exam.
As if the crackdown was not enough, the administration filed a libel case against the editorial board. Three of the Dawn artists from UE Caloocan already received a subpoena.
One of the staffers who tried to conduct an interview for an article was reportedly told by an administrator that the Dawn does not exist anymore. He, or the administration for that matter, was wrong. In fact, they were wrong on numerous instances and they committed serious violations of Campus Journalism Act of 1991 and their own university guidelines (this is not to mention the serious breach of student democratic rights):
- The manual collection scheme does not have any basis. According to Article 7 of the UE “Policy Guidelines of the Total Student Care Program: On Matters Concerning Student Publication,” the “editorial board, in coordination with the school administration, may provide a system for the collection of publication fees from the students.” Therefore, at some distant point in the past, both parties had agreed on automatic collection, meaning the university shall collect the publication fee upon enrolment, meaning the publication fee is included in the list of miscellaneous fees to be settled upon registration. And this has been the practice since time immemorial.
The only way for the collection scheme to be changed is when the editorial board, not any other student organization or institution, and the administration have agreed on shifting to manual collection. In this case, the administration did not even consult the editorial board. In fact, it was only the president who decided that the manner of collection be changed.
By all means, the administration had to collect the publication fund that was not collected during the months of manual collection. Failure or refusal to do so can serve as a ground for a case.
Moreover, according to the Campus Journalism Act of 1991, in no way should “the school administration concerned withhold the release of funds sourced from the savings of the appropriations of the respective schools and other sources intended for the student publication.”
This is not the first case in which the administration imposed a manual collection scheme after the publication has written articles that earned the ire of the school officials. In various instances, this scheme has trimmed down the funds of critical student publications, thus restricting their capacity to circulate copies, to hold trainings for the staffers, and to conduct other relevant activities, as in the case of the Angelite of the Holy Angel University in Pampanga. It has been a tried and tested method of suppressing campus press freedom.
2. The qualifying examination is invalid. By practice, the staffers who passed the qualifying exam a year ago or years ago need not retake the test. On what basis, then, did the administration, without consulting the editorial board, require all staffers to take the test? Also, there is no school policy that prohibits students facing an administrative case to take the qualifying examination.
3. The convening of the screening committee, which administers the qualifying examinations, has violated the provisions of the Policy Guidelines of the Total Student Care Program. The members of the committee should include one media practitioner acceptable to “both school administration and the editorial board” and two past editors in chief “to be chosen by the outgoing editorial board.” However, it was only the administration that selected the members of the committee and did not involve the editorial board in the process. Hence, the qualifying examination administered by the committee is invalid.
The UE administration should bear in mind that the student publication is one of the concrete manifestations of students’ democratic rights in the campus. An institution can hardly claim that it is democratic if a student publication does not exist. Needless to say, a publication is an indispensible vehicle for information dissemination and exchange of ideas. Historically, the student publications served as the alternative lens at a time when the vibrant press was gagged and only the crony press operates.
It is clear that the UE administration has tried almost all the methods to shut down a publication that is beginning to speak against what it deems as unjust policies and questionable fees. Freedom of expression lies on the idea of opening spaces for a healthy discourse, a debate in which ideas are refined and pitted against one another. The truth will emerge in the competition of arguments in the “marketplace of ideas,” as Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. said.
But the administration, instead of addressing the concerns and engaging in free discourse, has chosen to incapacitate the publication, even violating its own guidelines in the process. It has even filed a libel case against the staffers. Let us remember that the libel case is a criminal case, and to file such a case against a student is tantamount to saying that he or she is not a budding journalist whose venue for training is the academe, that he or she stands on the same ground as professional media practitioners, and that the premise of academic freedom can do little to exempt him or her from being a defendant in such a case.
The disciplinary cases filed against the staffers can never be enough justification for withholding the funds or ceasing the operations of the publication. For the publication was established by the students for the students, and no other force or institution can abolish the publication or suspend its operations through various means.
For months now, the university has been in the dead of the night, if truth and knowledge is the sunlight that pierces through the darkness. The student publication, the primary venue in which the students’ voices will be heard, is an essential vehicle of truth and knowledge. The UE administration should know that it could not keep the sun from rising, it could no longer keep the students in the dark.
Pauline Gidget Estella