Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sotto to Go?: Repealing Republic Act 53 or the Press Freedom Law (Third World Studies Center Policy Dialogue Series 2007)

December 03, 2007 (Monday)
1:00-3:00 p.m.
Conference Room, Balay Kalinaw
University of the Philippines
Diliman, Quezon City

In its commitment to contribute to meaningful dialogues in the search for alternatives and viable policy options, the Third World Studies Center's Policy Dialogue Series 2007 focuses on key policy issues that determine the trajectory of the 14th Philippine Congress. The series brings to fore major multisectoral policy concerns vis-a-vis the executive's and legislature's policy agenda and, more importantly, to come up with policy proposals for a more responsive new legislature. This year’s Policy Dialogue Series is co-sponsored with the Office of the Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

“Sotto to Go?: Repealing Republic Act 53 or the Press Freedom Law” is the last installment in the three-part series In Session: Legislations in the 14th Philippine Congress. Amending Republic Act 53, otherwise known as the Sotto law, was initiated during the 13th Congress by Cebu legislator Raul del Mar. The current law provides print journalists the shield from divulging their sources. His proposal was to expand the coverage of protection to include broadcast and new media journalists. Revival of its amendment in the 14th Congress, however, has a different intent–to compel a journalist to reveal her sources on the leak on the proceedings of a Senate executive session investigating the controversy-ridden NBN-ZTE broadband deal. In its existing form, the law is wanting in protecting media practitioners using platforms that were still nonexistent when the law was crafted. But a suspect motive for tinkering with the law
necessitates a critical discussion on how to remedy a deficiency while shielding the outcome from possible perversion.

The third and last installment of the PDS 2007 intends to provide space for critical discussion on the following questions: What provisions of the law need to be repealed or amended? What possible mechanisms can be proposed to preclude the law from being perverted by personal and/or political interests?



Welcome Remarks
Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem
Director,Third World Studies Center
College of Social Sciences and Philosophy
University of the Philippines-Diliman

Introduction of the Discussants and Format of the Dialogue

Sotto to Go?: Repealing Republic Act 53 or the Press Freedom Law


Danilo A. Arao
Assistant Professor
Department of Journalism
College of Mass Communication
University of the Philippines-Diliman

Open Forum

Last Comments from the Discussant and Synthesis


Aries A. Arugay
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
College of Social Sciences and Philosophy
University of the Philippines-Diliman


DANILO A. ARAO (Assistant Professor, College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines [UP]-Diliman): This presentation is an update of a position paper I submitted to the Office of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr. early this year regarding his proposal to amend Sec. 1 of Republic Act (RA) No. 53, also known as the Shield Law.

As the invitation of the Third World Studies Center (TWSC) came a little late, I did not have time to visit the bills and index divisions of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. To prepare for this presentation, I only made a quick perusal of the website of the Philippine Senate a few hours before this forum. I apologize in advance if I do not have information on related bills at the House of Representatives, particularly the one filed by Rep. Raul del Mar.

I also tried looking for bills or resolutions that have been filed by senators regarding the proposal to repeal RA 53. As of this writing, I have not found any. Apparently, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile only made a pronouncement in early October 2007 that he is in favor of repealing or amending RA 53. This was in reaction to a reporter’s refusal to reveal the sources of her information in a story she wrote regarding a close-door session of the Senate in its investigation of the Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Company Limited (ZTE) contract.


Based on my limited research, I found out that Senate Bill No. (SBN) 2477 which was filed during the 13th Congress – the bill that I commented on early this year – has been re-filed without any changes by Sen. Revilla last June 30 as SBN 165.

Aside from this bill, Senators Mar Roxas, Jinggoy Estrada, and – perhaps the soon-to-expelled – Antonio Trillanes IV, also filed three other bills which are essentially the same as the one filed by Revilla. The only notable exception is that Senator Estrada’s bill only covers print and broadcast journalists and excludes on-line journalists.



Date of Filing


SBN 165

Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr.

June 30, 2007

Read on First Reading and Referred to Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on July 31, 2007

SBN 251

Sen. Mar Roxas

June 30, 2007

Read on First Reading and Referred to Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on August 6, 2007

SBN 349

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada

July 2, 2007

Read on First Reading and Referred to Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on August 7, 2007

SBN 757

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV

July 3, 2007

Read on First Reading and Referred to Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on September 3, 2007

Source of basic information: Philippine Senate website

In any case, the four pending senate bills which seek to amend Sec. 1 of Republic Act No. 53 (Shield Law) are beneficial to broadcast and on-line journalists since they will now be protected from unduly revealing the sources of information they used in their reports.

RA No. 53, as amended by RA No. 1477, states that “the publisher, editor, columnist, or duly accredited reporter of a newspaper, magazine or periodical of general circulation cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any information or news report appearing in said publication.” The only exception is when “the court or a House or Committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.” Clearly, only print journalists are protected from revealing their sources of information.

When RA No. 53 was amended in 1956, then Sen. Vicente Sotto saw the need to change the phrase “interest of the State” to “security of the State” so that certain interest groups could be prevented from using nebulous phrases like “interest of the State” to compel journalists to reveal their sources. At that time, journalism was still assumed to be mainly for the print medium given that radio and television journalism were still starting in the Philippines. The Internet, on the other hand, obviously remained a pipe dream then.

At present, journalism has taken on a multi-media character to include not just print but also radio, television and on-line. It therefore makes sense to amend old laws that still make journalism synonymous with print in order to adjust to the changing times, particularly developments in information and communication technology that affect the practice of the journalism profession.

The teaching of journalism is currently geared towards producing graduates who can straddle different forms of mass media. As such, laws on mass media like RA No. 53 should therefore consider such multi-media orientation so that journalists can be better protected, and press freedom better promoted and upheld.

Sen. Revilla and the three other senators should therefore be commended for their efforts to amend RA No. 53 to expand the protection from unduly revealing sources of information to those in broadcast and new media. Other members of the Senate should show their unwavering support for press freedom and the rights and welfare of journalists by voting in favor of the proposal to amend RA No. 53.


However, the proposed amendment to Sec. 1 of RA No. 53 (as amended by RA No. 1477) can still be further improved by simplifying the sentence construction. For purposes of discussion, allow me to cite the provision in SBN 165.

From: (based on SBN 165)


Section 1. Without prejudice to his liability under the civil and criminal laws, a duly accredited journalist of any print, broadcast, Internet, or wire service organization, including the publisher, station owner and/or manager, bureau chief, editor, news editor, writer or reporter, correspondent, opinion columnist or commentator, cartoonist, photographer, or other practitioner involved in the writing, editing, commenting of the news for mass circulation cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news item, news report or information appearing or being reported or dissiminated (sic) in said media, which was related in confidence to such journalist or practitioner unless the court or the House of Representatives or the Senate or any of its committees finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the state.

Section 1. Without prejudice to liability under civil and criminal laws, a journalist employed by any print, broadcast or new media organization – including but not limited to the publisher, station owner and/or manager, editor, reporter, correspondent, columnist, cartoonist, photographer, art director, layout artist, webmaster and other practitioners involved in the writing, editing, design and layout of news – cannot be compelled to reveal the source of information used in his or her reports disseminated through the said media which was related in confidence to such journalist unless the court or the House of Representatives or the Senate or any of its committees finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.

Reasons for the proposed changes:

  1. The phrase “duly accredited” is too broad and could be interpreted as licensing of journalists, a measure that is inimical to press freedom.
  2. A wire service organization does not need to be a separate category since it can fall under print, broadcast or new media, depending on the organization. Reuters, for example, straddles print, broadcast and on-line journalism.
  3. While there is no need to make exhaustive the examples of journalists, there is still a need to include those involved in the design and layout of print and on-line publications. The phrase “included but not limited to” can provide more flexibility in defining the various roles that a journalist plays in a media organization.


J. Prospero E. de Vera III (Associate Professor, National College of Public Administration and Governance, UP-Diliman): I would like to make one or two comments. The first one is on the proposed amendments. There is mention of a layout artist, cartoonist, webmaster, photojournalist, I wonder, how you would define their sources of information and why they should be protected from executive provisions and legislative officials? The other one is, I wonder if there are cases already, testing the definition of “security” or “interest of the state” in situations where members of the media were forced to reveal their sources. I remember that in the Senate, senators have been very circumspect about making media practitioners reveal their sources. In the last investigation of the ZTE scandal, Jarius Bondoc was asked to reveal certain information which was used as basis to write his columns. When he was asked to reveal his source of information, Jarius said, I wish I could give the information but the source of information does not want to be identified. The Senators did not push the issue. They simply respected the fact that the columnist did not want reveal who the source was. I do not know if this is the first time that the Senate did not insist. What I’m pointing out is that when we proposed amendments to the law, I did not know the context in terms of the several types of information and several types of sources and how to test whether jurisprudence actually protects it.

DANILO A. ARAO: Regarding the proposed inclusion of the layout artist, cartoonist, and webmaster, I think there is still a need to have them covered in the protection of the Shield Law in a sense that, to be honest, politicians can be onion-skinned even when it comes to cartoons. They take offense. I think for some reason sense of humor has been lost on them. Also, there are cases where cartoonists do research and look for sources of information whenever they depict a certain character. So, while I concede that the Shield Law will benefit the writers more than anyone else, it might be good if cartoonists, webmasters and layout artists can also be protected as a precautionary measure for whatever creative means some politicians or interest groups may do to harass journalist. So, it is more of an allowance that we are trying to provide for the cartoonist, the layout artist, and the webmasters.

Now, with regard to the test case regarding the definition of “security of the state,” I am not a lawyer, but from what I recall way back in 1956, Sen. Vicente Sotto was compelled to make the necessary amendment from the “interest of the state” to “security of the state” because at that time journalists were being sued left and right. They were being coerced by various interest groups to reveal their sources of information using as an excuse RA 53. That would partly explain why Sen. Vicente Sotto at that time was forced to make the changes.

With regard to this jurisprudence, I apologize, I cannot comment on that because I do not have the necessary legal acumen to give a more appropriate assessment of the definition of “security of the state.” However, from what I recall from way back in 1956, that was done to guard against the abuses made in misinterpreting RA 53. From 1956 up to 2007, there were instances when journalists had been coerced into revealing source of information but not through RA 53. It was through the potent weapon of a magistrate. I am talking about the judge’s power to cite people for contempt for the flimsiest of reasons. I recall Ramon Tulfo, for example, being cited for contempt several times by judges. This was for his refusal to reveal sources of information in the columns he wrote. So, right now the practice of the powers that be is not so much as to use RA 53, particularly the phrase “security of the state,” as an excuse to reveal sources of information. Rather such measures are being done through the power to cite people for contempt. Even if we are able to make the necessary amendments to RA 53, we still have to contend with this particular thing. The law is not an automatic guarantee that journalist will be protected because the power to cite people for contempt by judges by for the flimsiest of reasons can still be done. Honestly, I do not have any answer as to how we can make those necessary amendments. Maybe Prof. de Vera can have some answers.

J. Prospero E. de Vera III: I asked the questions because when were drafting the anti-terrorism law, the Human Security Law as we call it, nobody could define what terrorism is. It is a very slimy, difficult term. So, what the law did was to identify actions that would cause terrorism, but it never defined terrorism. In the same, “security of the state” is also very difficult to define. So then, part of the amendments to the law should be to identify the actions that would undermine the security of the state. Let us say that, unless this actually happens then the media cannot be forced to reveal their source of information.

Another amendment could also be to create the mechanism to define who will determine whether this action, as enumerated in the law, is actually present. Since if you just define what constitutes undermining the security of the state and then you let Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. define it, obviously he will define it differently from the media. There has to be some independent third party institution that will determine whether that information actually could undermine the security of the state. Maybe that can be incorporated in the proposal.

Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem (Director, Third World Studies Center): I have three questions. I was wondering about what happened last Thursday, November 29, 2007, at the standoff between Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and the government forces at the Peninsula Manila hotel in Makati City with regard to the issue about media rights. Does that bill cover it? Because I saw two aspects in relation to this: on the one hand, the police announcing that ABS-CBN for example, knew that the mutiny or coup, was going to happen; the second is that it also goes beyond that, it goes to the rights of media reporters to cover situations like this. Do you think it can have an effect on the bill, with regard to this aspect? And for the third one, when we were having the cheaper medicines bill discussion, it was noted that no one in Congress was particularly against it. However, everyone knew that the power of the pharmaceuticals was there. Are you encountering the same issue or problem with passing this bill? Do you find anyone saying outright, we are not for it or is there a power as strong as the pharmaceuticals that is delaying it, this media bill?

DANILO A. ARAO: Very interesting questions. Actually, I think that there is no senator who has expressed opposition to the proposed amendments for very obvious reasons. Just like the cheaper medicine bill, these are seemingly harmless provisions that will uphold press freedom. Besides I am sure that you know how journalists are very, very sensitive when it comes to measures that may be inimical to press freedom. No senator in his or her right mind would clash with journalists on this issue because it is something that seeks to update a very, very old law. Now, having said that, it still makes you wonder why this did not pass in the previous Congress. I think I will agree with Dr. Tadem that there are moves to sweep this particular bill under the rug. I noticed that in the concept paper that it is classified as an administration bill and that it is something that is being rushed. However, from my information at the Senate, that is not the case. I do not know about the House of Representatives. This in part explains why we need to engage in legislative advocacy, to ensure that at least the bill will pass and go through the necessary process so that it will be passed and approved into the law.

As I presented a while ago, these bills have been filed as early as June 30 and July 3. Those are the date ranges. Now the year is about to end, but they are still pending at the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media. Again, it makes you wonder why. It is possible that senators may not be opposed to it, but they do not see it as a priority.

Now, will the event that happened last Thursday be used as an excuse to kill these particular bills? Well, the good news is, I don’t think so. But the bad news is that it is still possible for the government to think of more creative ways to suppress press freedom through extralegal means, for example, the arrest of journalists and media workers, about 17 of them, during that Manila Peninsula siege or standoff. What happened there was that journalists were arrested for the simple reason that they were there. Some of the journalists who were there were former students and I am in close contact with them. I am sorry if I am digressing a bit from our discussion, but some of those journalists actually wanted to get out of the Manila Peninsula, there were those who wanted to obey the police. They wanted to get out but they were prevented, allegedly, by the Magdalo soldiers of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV. The police apparently did not heed or pay close attention to the explanations made by these journalists. So, that is the first point. The second point, which I think is more important, is if you start arresting journalist who cover conflicts, hostage-taking situations or any other event like that, it clearly shows that you are discouraging them from doing so in the future. It is very much like the killing of journalists, it sends a chilling effect on the practice of the profession.

I believe that even if President Macapagal Arroyo has warned the police about arresting and handcuffing journalists, the message has already been clearly sent. This administration, particularly the police and the military can do whatever they want. We are not yet even talking about of the legality behind the curfew. It may not have any bearing on the case that is pending, but through extralegal means, it appears that the Macapal Arroyo Administration is, flexing its political muscles to suppress press freedom. That is something that we have to watch out for. That is something important.

With regard to the third point, is this something related to the Shield Law? Does the event, somehow, have a bearing on the Shield Law? I think that, again, the police and the military are seemingly ignorant of the Shield Law. Right then and there, the police and the military decided to confiscate the video clips and other equipment, particularly of ABS-CBN. The network appears to have caught the ire of the police and military for the simple reason that they were the first to set up and they were among the first to be there at the scene. There were accusations that they had inside information. I can safely say this, because as I told you I have sources at ABS-CBN and some of them are former students. It just so happened that they were doing their jobs, they had the necessary technical expertise, and they had the necessary technology. I am sure you are aware that only ABS-CBN and GMA have roving vans in the country. They are the only ones who have the capacity to do live broadcast.

The violation of RA 53 happened because the military did not just ask the journalists to reveal their sources; it was taken away from them. These are supposed to be private properties. They are not supposed to do that even if they are the police and the military. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that they were trying to investigate or get details and that the footage, the video clips are important sources of evidence. There is a way to compel networks to provide the police and military with the necessary video clips. They can go to court and can compel the networks to surrender the coverage. What we want is to go through the legal channels and not to violate the law, particularly RA 53.

Gladstone Cuarteros (Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, UP-Diliman): How important is this issue for journalists? We know that in legislative advocacy some constituency is needed for legislation. Is there a group trying to sway the legislators and what are the opinions of broadcasters or groups of journalists?

DANILO A. ARAO: Is this being given importance? Honestly no, it is not. We think that it is important but the problem is, under this administration, there are no guarantees. We have a law but it is interpreted to suit the interests of the powers that be. I am sorry if I sound a bit self-repeating but even if RA 53 has been amended to cover all parts of media, what guarantee does it give? Honestly, I cannot answer that. We have an administration that seems to flex its political muscles every now and then to either perpetuate itself in power or to pursue whatever interest they may have in mind. The imposition of the curfew is one of them. The imposition of Presidential Proclamation 1017 way back in February 2006 resulted in the cancellation of my radio program in DZRJ. It is illegal to be canceling radio programs but it happened. These are instances where you wonder if the passage of the law can really guarantee anything. Still, we need to push for such laws because it gives us more political mileage in terms of arguing and fighting for our rights as journalists or as ordinary citizens who would want to more freely express our opinions and our stand on present issues and concerns.

I am not aware if the likes of the Kapisanan ng mga Broadcaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) has taken a position regarding this. I do know that the National Press Club (NPC) and the KBP are engaged in legislative advocacy for a different bill. I do not know if this might be of interest to the TWSC, but there is a pending bill on the right to reply. In essence, the bill seeks to provide equal space or equal airtime to aggrieved parties. We oppose it. Even the College of Mass Communications stated its opposition against it and we are one with the KBP and the NPC in blocking that particular bill. It was filed by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel in the past and I think it was shelved in the previous congress. I do not know if it will be re-filed by another senator, but it is something that we are watching out for.

I am a member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and I know it is supportive of this particular move to expand the Shield Law. Although I have to admit that the NUJP now has even bigger problems. I am sure you know that there are journalist being killed left and right—the NUJP has it at around 56, others at around 30. Regardless of the number, we feel that the killing of journalists is of paramount concern. I am not saying that amending RA 53 is not important, but the extralegal mechanism being resorted to by the Macapagal Arroyo administration is really taking its toll on journalists. To cite some examples, there was no legal basis for arresting journalist at the Manila Peninsula but it still happened. There was no basis for Executive Order 464, but it is there. There was no basis for Presidential Proclamation 1017 but, again, it is there. So, there are a lot of things that journalists are concerned with right now.

Madeline QUIAMCO (Associate Dean, Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication): I came because I have an on-going study on policies on information access and I have done research on 13th and 14th Congress bills. As Prof. Arao said there was actually no information access bill that passed the 13th Congress. What the Information Committee told us was that they were very busy with the hearings they were not able to process the 58 bills or so that had been filed. The 14th Congress has just started and they said there are now more information access bills that had been filed than in the whole of the 13th Congress. What bothers me is that one congress is three years, if a bill does not become a law after three years then, it is out. It has to be filed again.

You mentioned earlier of the right to reply that, I think, journalists are opposing. I think there is a need for Senator Pimentel to make changes so that it becomes more palatable to journalists. This bill, if it becomes a law, says that you have every right to request time to defend yourself. It is as simple as that. It can of course be used in other ways, but the point is journalists will now have to be more careful, even if it’s just a blind item.

DANILO A. ARAO: I just have a short explanation with regard to the right to reply bill, why I am opposed to it. It is not that I oppose the principle. Everybody has the right to reply and they should be accorded with the necessary opportunity to have their letter to the editor or whatever statements they have, aired or uploaded in the case of on-line publication. Our main point of contention is that we cannot provide equal time or equal space to the so-called aggrieved parties because you will end up imposing objectivity. It is very much like the Code of Ethics. You do not have to legislate it. We are for self-regulation in media. There are concrete mechanisms wherein aggrieved parties who were not accorded the necessary privilege by the newspaper or the TV show or the radio show or an online publication to seek redress for their grievance. For example, the Philippine Press Council (PPC) can actually coerce—I am using the term quite loosely—a newspaper that refuses to publish the letter to the editor of an aggrieved person to publish it. It can tell this particular newspaper that, if they do not publish the letter, all of the other member newspapers of the PPC will publish it.

Self-regulatory mechanisms should be given the chance to work so that we can really ensure objectivity in the media profession. Once you impose that, once you legislate that, you can come up with very, very extreme cases. For example, there is a newspaper account, a headline, where I was identified as an instructor at UP although I am an assistant professor. I want to be given that privilege, even if it is a very minor correction. Under the right to reply bill as formulated by Senator Pimentel, the statement that I am an assistant professor, will be put on the headline again the next day, even if it is a very, very inconsequential comment. Do you get what I mean? There is room for abuse. Now, I am making an extreme case to show scenarios that might happen if you end up imposing basic principles in journalism. Having the right to reply bill does not guarantee professionalism. You cannot impose professionalism.

What the Senate can do, perhaps, would be to create an atmosphere that is conducive for self-regulation in media, an atmosphere that promotes and upholds press freedom. That particular bill can compromise press freedom instead of uphold it because it leaves room for much abuse. Very much like what Prof. de Vera said a while ago regarding “security of the state,” there is that possibility of abuse in the right to reply bill as formulated right now. I am not familiar with whatever palatable packaging is being made by Senator Pimentel, but we will be open to presenting our position if and when their amendments are being made. Right now, we have decided to oppose the bill as formulated.

J. Prospero E. de Vera III: The reason why Senator Pimentel filed the bill is not really because he is an aggrieved party, although he is attacked all the time by the media. It is really a response to a lot of other people who are complaining, especially those who are less politically visible, those less articulate who claim that when they reply, when they are aggrieved, the letter is published in page 28, for example. This happens even if it is the case that the attack was published in page 2. We receive a lot of complaints from groups, especially those that are more politically marginalized. However, I do agree that maybe the journalists, the media has to sit down with the Senator, and if this can be done through self-regulation, then we have no objection to it at all.

Of course we would prefer that it be self- regulated, but you also have to understand that media organizations also have business interests. One cannot really isolate the fact that there are business interests involved. Some columnists, unfortunately, can also act on behalf of influential economic interests. So, there is a journalist who attacks Senator Pimentel at every opportunity, every day and we note that. Yet, you can only reply so often to the attack and sometimes we just bear them and hope the public knows better. That is really the context of it.

DANILO A. ARAO: I’d like to follow up on what was said earlier. I think the bigger problem is not so much the forcing of the media to reveal their source of information. The bigger problem is getting information. The freedom to information law is really the one that we are hoping would be pushed aggressively by media organizations. Unfortunately, the support we were expecting was not given. There was no strong snowballing effect to force legislators to act.

A lot of people do not know that there is an executive order signed by Pres. Ramos, that this is still alive until today. It requires government offices to provide information. However, a lot of government offices do not even know that there is such an executive order, or say that they do not know. You notice that through the law corrupt executive officials can really put a thousand obstacles in the way of getting access to information. If you can not even get the actual contract or a deed of sale, how can they extract accountability from executive officials? The bigger question to be looked at is the whole concept of right to information to help the media also in getting information for their report.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. Despite the many issues confronting the media right now, the most recent being, what happened last Thursday, the arrest of journalists. We hope that the bill seeking to amend the Shield Law will be given the attention that it deserves. I do understand that among all forms of advocacy, legislative advocacy is that particular field that is not given much attention. However, we should try our best to push our senators to make the necessary changes to the Shield Law and monitor, as Prof. de Vera said, other bills related to the promotion and upholding of media rights; the rights and welfare of journalists, in particular. There are so many issues that we are confronting right now and we should study them because what is at stake here is not just the right of journalists, but press freedom in general which is supposed to be the backbone for democracy.

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