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Seares: Rappler’s lawsuit: Have its reporters been prevented from doing their job?

Medias Public

RAPPLER reporter Pia Ranada was banned from Malacañang Palace starting Feb. 20, 2018. Since then there had been seven instances when other reporters of the digital news site were allegedly barred entry to, or removed from, public events managed by the President’s office.

14-month wait

Rappler chief Maria Ressa publicly called it out as unconstitutional. Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo last Dec. 14 said Rappler should’ve sued if it thought the Constitution was violated by the ban on Ranada and other reporters.

Well, last April 11, or about 14 months after the ban was imposed, five news reporters and four regional correspondents of Rappler went to the Supreme Court and complained against the offices of the President, the executive secretary, and the presidential communication operations media accreditation.

The petition for certiorari, with prayer for writ of preliminary injunction, to lift the ban cited that Rappler managers had reached out by letters to the three offices but got no reply from their chiefs.

‘Lies’ and ‘twisted’ angle

It was President Duterte who issued the order, presumably just verbally, “That is my order. Do not talk to people who will produce lies out of your statements. And who can twist it forever to the angle that they would like it to.” If there was a formal order in writing, it has not been publicly shown.

Rappler has been saying it is a “significant press freedom case under the Duterte administration.” To media practitioners, it may address a number of issues regarding access to information that have long bugged relations between news media and elected public officials. The most complex and annoying:

* Does a public official get to choose the news reporters who cover him? The accreditation of his office is supposedly just to authenticate identity and legitimacy of the reporters. The danger is that the official will accredit, or retain accreditation of, only those whose reports he finds favorable and inoffensive.

* Can a public official blacklist and ban reporters or organizations that he deems “non grata” because of writing that he does not find to his liking? What standard is set and who determines that standard if not the reporter’s editor?

* If the news media and its reporters are not prevented from reporting or writing about the public official, does that justify the ban and take it out of the violation of press freedom?

Malacañang relies on the argument that Rappler reporters can still monitor activities in Malacañang and the President’s out-of-palace events. Reporter Ranada in fact has been producing stories about Duterte without talking to him or setting foot on Palace grounds or offices.

Baltimore Sun ruling

The President’s legal office may be inspired by the ruling in the case of “The (Baltimore) Sun” that sued over the ban against one of its reporters and one columnist, who were totally cut off from their sources in the state of Maryland. Its governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., on Nov. 18, 2004 banned all its public employees from talking or otherwise communicating with the two Sun journalists.

A three-panel judge of the US Court of Appeals (Fourth Circuit) in Richmond, Virginia in 2005 affirmed the dismissal of the complaint by the lower court, ruling that the order was “part of the ordinary rough and tumble of political reporting.”

Retaliation

The key question, the C.A. ruled, is: had the Sun reporters been prevented from doing their job and thus lost the protection of the press freedom amendment? At the same time though, it overlooked the question whether a public official can retaliate against a reporter based on what he writes by barring the usual access given other reporters. (The Sun didn’t appeal the ruling, saying it would use other means to continue their full coverage of the governor.)

Rappler in its petition cited alleged violation of the equal protection clause, namely, that it cannot be denied the same right granted other news media workers, or for that matter, other citizens in gathering information of public interest.

What the public may see

Our Supreme Court could go either way, with available argument in law and jurisprudence. And the law is what the SC says it is.

But this may not be lost on a discerning public:

* A public official can easily and promptly correct any mistake of a media outlet, innocent or willful, deliberate or made in the heat of deadline. Media has its mechanism for correction of errors. And government has its own media equipment, especially Malacañang whose apparatus and influence reach nooks and crannies of the media world.

* There are many platforms of media, to which a public official, or any other person, aggrieved by a news story can resort for rectification and relief. The news cycle is endless, and the army of trolls protecting the interest of some politicians does not rest.

Overreach

A public official may refuse to answer a question from any reporter or choose the news media he will give information to. That’s a practice that no law can deter among public officials who manipulate media to their advantage and benefit.

And a reporter who clearly offends ethical rules in covering his beat may be replaced by a colleague from the same media outlet. Banning an entire news organization is an overreach that can be seen only as intolerance of bad news and critical opinion.


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