Manila Pen Case Dismissal Hit: Police Warned Against Using Court Decision to Arrest Journalists


The arrest and investigation of media practitioners who covered the Manila Peninsula incident by the police were justified, said a Makati regional trial court judge. He even said that journalists were “so lucky for not being charged with criminal cases.” Media groups called the decision the biggest blow on press freedom since 1946, adding that the situation is even worse than martial law.

By Ronalyn V. Olea
Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 22, July 6-12, 2008

Mas masahol pa ito sa martial law. Sa martial law, alam mo ang limits. Ngayon, gugulatin ka na lang.” (This is worse than martial law. During martial law, you know the limits. But now, you will just be caught flatfooted.)

Journalist Vergel Santos more or less summed up the sentiments of his colleagues at a roundtable discussion last July 2 in Taguig City.

Irked by the June 20 decision of Makati regional trial court (RTC) Branch 56 Judge Reynaldo Laigo, Santos said this has the biggest chilling effect in the journalism profession.

In his five-page decision dismissing the civil case filed by media practitioners, Laigo maintained, “The order issued by Philippine National Police National Capital Region Office (PNP-NCR) Chief Gen. Geary Barias was but lawful and appeared to have been disobeyed by media when they intentionally refused to leave the hotel premises.”

Laigo added, “An appropriate criminal charge under Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code could have been initiated against them…they were so lucky as none had been initiated. Their having been handcuffed and brought to Camp Bagong Diwa for investigation and released thereafter, was justified, it being accord with police procedure.”

He also said that the pronouncements made by Barias and other defendants and the advisory of Secretary Gonzalez following the Manila Peninsula incident “have not and will not in any way curtail, much less avert media from exercising freely their rights to cover or obtain information on future events.”

Journalists were handcuffed and “processed” after the Manila Peninsula incident.

Thirty-six journalists and camera operators, along with representatives of some media organizations and the academe, filed a civil suit against the police and authorities after the siege.

Atty. Harry Roque, legal counsel of the complainants, said he was surprised that the civil case has already been dismissed. Laigo’s ruling was issued June 20 but Roque said he was the last to get a copy. “Nauna pa si Barias makakuha ng kopya. Siya pa nga ang nag-leak sa media.” (Barias was the first to get a copy. He was even the one who leaked it to the media.)

Roque initially thought that the dismissal pertains to their petition for preliminary injunction intending to prolong the temporary restraining order (TRO). Earlier, Makati RTC Executive Judge Josefina Salonga granted their petition for TRO directing the PNP, Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) not to repeat the offenses against the media.

Roque said that contrary to Barias’ pronouncements and to Laigo’s opinion, Ashzer Hachero of Malaya testified before the court that the police issued no categorical order for journalists to leave the hotel premises.

Wrong decision

Roque said, “Dahil sa Chavez vs NTC ruling, sa tingin ko, with all due respect, mali ang desisyon ni Judge Laigo.” (Because of the Chavez vs. NTC ruling, I think, with all due respect, Judge Laigo’s decision is wrong.)

The Supreme Court upheld press freedom in its ruling on Chavez vs. National Telecommunications Commission. “Kahit advisory, kung ang resulta ay magkaroon ng takot ang media upang gampanan ang kanilang trabaho, ay paglabag sa karapatan ng pamamahayag.” (Even an advisory, if it will cause chilling effect on media in performing their jobs, constitutes violation of press freedom.)

Roque said he is still studying whether to go to the Court of Appeals or to the Supreme Court to file an appeal.

He said he is ready to take the case to the United Nations Committee of Human Rights in Geneva when all domestic remedies have been exhausted. ”Naniniwala na ang ginawa ng ating kapulisan ay seryosong paglabag sa Article 19 ng International Covention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” (I believe that what the police did is a serious violation of the Article 19 of the ICCPR.) The Philippine government is a state party to the agreement.

Warning

In a statement, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said, “The RTC decision would not only legitimize an illegitimate attempt to subvert press freedom, the Constitution and democracy. It would now embolden and arm the regime with the license to repeat the offense, as it has several times threatened to do.”

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) also expressed alarm, “The dismissal of the suit and the executive rationale behind the police’s arrest of covering journalists to start with, immediately brings uncertainty and danger to media practitioners in future urgencies – uncertainty and danger not from the inherent risks of emergencies, but from the mandate that police and the government have granted themselves (now with court backing) to dictate what would be out of bounds for news coverage.”

In a statement, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), an alliance of tertiary student publications, criticized the court ruling, “…in effect, [it] excuses authorities’ abuse of power over unfounded allegations and baseless accusations.” “After accusing members of the media of colluding with the military rebels, the police were unable to support their accusations,” the CEGP said.

Roque said that Barias is obviously happy with the decision. He told the media, “Huwag kayong mabigla kung gagamitin [ang desisyon]. Hindi na lamang kayo aarestuhin kundi kakasuhan na rin.” (Do not be surprised if the police will use the decision. You will not just be arrested, you will also be charged.)

But Roque also warned the PNP that the RTC decision is binding only to the parties thereto and has no jurisprudential value. “Akala nila, sapat nang basehan, nagkakamali sila. Hindi pa po ito pinal.” (If they think they have enough bases, they are mistaken. The decision is not yet final.)

If the PNP will repeat the offense, Roque said, “Pupwede na natin silang kasuhan ng kasong kriminal, coercion or serious illegal detention.” (We can also file criminal charges against them, such as coercion or serious illegal detention.)

Judiciary

Ellen Tordesillas, one of the complainants, said she is concerned on the possible loss of faith in the judiciary.

In an interview, Carol Araullo, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan, New Patriotic Alliance) chair, said that justices, because they are appointed by the executive, are vulnerable to undue influence or interference by the executive department.

She said, “If media practitioners, despite their being influential, were slapped by the RTC decision, how could the ordinary citizens who do not have the political and economic power to voice out the injustices done to them obtain justice?

Policy

Santos said the attacks on media are ‘methodical and conspiratorial.’ “May mga pwersang gustong sumupil sa atin.” (There are forces out to suppress us.)

The CMFR deemed that the ruling was issued “in the context of a clear policy by a regime hostile to press freedom and the people’s right to information to do all it can, both within and outside the law, as well as to stretch to the limit of what is legally allowed.”

It added, “No regime has the right to dictate that a decision to stay and cover is wrong and can be penalized.”

Araullo said, “In covering the news, intentionally or not, journalists are able to expose the oppressive nature of the state, the use of state power to protect and promote the interests of a few ruling elite. An administration like Arroyo, which is under siege and hugely unpopular, cannot tolerate even that. And the purpose of the actions at the Manila Pen is to instill fear among media practitioners.”

She said that the message to the media is clear, “Better behave, either by self-censorship or by meekly following military or police orders or they themselves will be targets. The state is the number one violator of human rights, particularly civil and political rights. It is important that journalists remain independent and fair and assertive of their right to cover the news, especially controversial political issues. In a sense, it is an important shield or defense against an all-powerful state.” Bulatlat

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