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SC: No violation of press freedom in arrest of journalists in Manila Peninsula siege

/ 07:23 PM January 10, 2019

MANILA, Philippines — The government is well within its power to strictly implement lawful orders, especially during emergency situations, and penalize those who violate them including the media, the Supreme Court has ruled.

“If media networks and personnel are found to have violated penal laws, they may be prosecuted and held liable therefore,” the high court said in the decision that affirmed the dismissal of the P10-million class suit filed by 37 broadcast and print journalists against the government for their arrest while covering the 2007 Manila Peninsula siege.

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In a 15-page decision made public Thursday, the high court’s first division said, in affirming the decisions of the Makati City Regional Trial Court and the Court of Appeals, that constitutional freedoms of speech and of the press or of the journalists were not violated when they were arrested by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“We sustain thus the RTC’s and the CA’s finding that there is no prior restraint nor an impermissible regulation on the petitioners’ freedom of speech and of the press considering that respondents’ questioned acts were merely brought about by the exigencies of the situation and ultimately, were valid exercise of their authority so as not to compromise the safety of the civilians at the scene of the incident,” the high court said in the ruling written by now-retired Associate Justice Noel Tijam.

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No rights violated

The high court said the Court of Appeals and the Makati City regional trial court branch 56 in 2013 and 2008, respectively, were correct in dismissing the suit for lack of cause of action because the complainants “failed to prove that their rights were violated which constitute an actionable wrong.”

On Nov. 29, 2007, now Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and other members of the Magdalo group walked out from a hearing at the Makati Regional Trial Court and stormed the Manila Peninsula Hotel where they held a press conference calling for the ouster of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Trillanes’ group were given a deadline to surrender before 3 p.m. that day. When the deadline has lapsed, the police hurled tear gas canisters inside the hotel premises. Members of the media were also inside the hotel.

The members of the media were taken to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig for processing and were released after several hours on the same day.

Class suit

After the incident, the Department of Justice (DOJ) came up with a position that the journalists ignoring police orders to leave a crime scene will be arrested and charged for obstruction of justice and willful disobedience of authority.

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The DOJ policy was supported by the police, military, Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of National Defense, prompting the journalists to file a suit. The journalists, however, lost in the lower court as well as the appellate court.

Among the complainants in the civil suit were veteran journalists Jessica Soho, Ed Lingao, Roby Alampay, and Ellen Tordesillas. They were joined by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility as petitioners in the SC.

Press freedom not absolute

In dismissing the journalists’ petition, the high court said that even the petitioners conceded, based on their appeal, that press freedom “is not absolute and unfettered at all times.”

“The list of cases in our jurisprudence could go on but the bottom line is that there is prior restraint when the government totally prohibits and/or in some way, restricts the expression of one’s view or the manner of expressing oneself. There is none in this case,” the SC said.

“The challenged government actions in the instant petition do not, in any way, come near the government actions struck down as unconstitutional for being tantamount to a prior restraint or censorship,” it added.

The advisory issued by the authorities clearly shows that no media network or personnel is prohibited nor restricted from reporting or writing newsworthy events, said the high court.

“Neither was there nay indication of the claimed chilling effect on the exercise by the media of the right to free speech and press…There was no allegation, much less proof, that the media opted to step back from or refused to cover similar events due to the fear of incurring criminal liability pursuant to the challenged advisory,” it added. /ee/ac

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TAGS: media class suit, news, Philippines, press freedom, Supreme Court
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