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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Seares: Banning reporter from press-con: motive for shutout is core issue

LAST Wednesday (Thursday, July 26 in the Philippines), CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins was banned from a White House Rose Garden event that was supposed to be open to media. Last Feb. 20, Pia Ranada, reporter of digital news site Rappler, was barred from the New Executive Building in Malacañang where Harry Roque, president’s spokesman, was to hold a press briefing.

In both incidents, reporters accredited by their news outlet and their beat organization, were denied access to their news sources, who are public officials paid with taxpayers’ money.

Common ground

Reason and extent of Ranada’s ban evolved. At first she was barred only from the Palace and the president’s offices, then later the entire Malacañang.

Initially, the alleged defect in the corporate personality of Rappler to operate a business was cited as cause; later it was Ranada’s quality of reporting.

Reason for the ban on Collins was specific. She asked allegedly “inappropriate questions” at the photo-op given by U.S. President Trump and European Commission president Claude-Jean Juncker.

Apparently, what brought the sanction in the two related incidents was the way the two women each did her job: Ranada’s writing and Collins’s questioning.

Questions raised

To the best of our knowledge, no local incident of government ban on access to the news has yet reached the Supreme Court. In Cebu City, a mayor shouted at a reporter to get out of his office, using his favorite cuss word. Another mayor ordered security guards to escort a photographer out of City Hall and in separate outbursts banned two reporters from his press-cons. None of them was litigated.

The questions often raised by the shutout of a reporter by the news source center on whether a public official:

* can choose the reporters who will cover him;

* can blacklist people -- business persons, NGO workers, journalists, and others -- from getting information held by taxpayers-paid employees.

Reprisal

Public officials at times hit back, such as leaking stories to journalists they like, “freezing out” reporters they hate, granting interview only to “friendly” commentators and anchors, publicly criticizing the reporter or opinion maker whose work is adverse or critical, and badmouthing them to publishers or station owners.

Those acts of reprisal most journalists can take as part of the tough work environment. But being denied access or, worse, booted out of one’s beat is something else.

Equal protection

Unlike an interview to a handpicked journalist, which his colleagues will resent but can’t legally assail, a press-con or briefing is open source of raw material in the news publishing business. Denying that to media would violate the equal protection clause in the Constitution.

But because it suggests materialism and is not as noble-sounding as the free-speech and free-press bit, lawyers and judges in U.S. cases talk mostly of the first amendment of the American constitution, the equivalent to the press freedom clause in our fundamental law.

Press freedom

These acts were struck down by U.S. courts, finding them abhorrent to press freedom, which may guide similar cases in our jurisdiction:

* The White House denial of accreditation to a journalist of the “The Nation” magazine;

* The New York police refusal to issue press credentials to a free-lance reporter;

* A Maryland governor’s order to all his departments and offices not to give any news or information to two reporters of “Baltimore Sun.”

‘Content-based’

Core issue in the litigated bans on U.S. reporters is motive: Is the reason for the ban other than content?

Roque reportedly told Rappler’s Ranada: “You make conclusions without facts. You editorialize your stories.” CNN’s Collins asked at the photo-op: “Did Michael Cohen (Trump’s lawyer) betray you, Mr. President?”; “Are there more tapes made by Cohen?”; “Is Vladimir Putin declining your invitation?” Collins was banned for what she asked; Ranada, for what she wrote.

But our Supreme Court might rule differently if Ranada’s case would ever get there. Given its current propensity to uphold questionable government moves, the SC might find a reason for ruling against Rappler on the ban of its reporter, maybe even a Roque-like assessment of her stories.


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