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Friday, September 20, 2019
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Seares: Can a public official ban a reporter he’s angry with over a ‘twisted’ story?

Medias Public

ORAL arguments in the hearing of the Rappler petition before the Supreme Court (SC) against high Palace officials, scheduled this week, may draw out more information from Malacañang on the reason, basis and scope of its ban on Pia Ranada and seven other reporters of the digital news site Rappler.

Since the ban was first enforced on Feb. 18, 2018, no written document has been released stating the important W’s and dotting the I’s of the controversial order. Rappler and media persons and entities opposing the ban have been befuddled by the “lack of information” and the “ever-changing” official explanation.

Media practitioners and future journalists are particularly interested to know if President Duterte, or any other public official, can legally and rightfully bar a reporter from Malacañang or any other building where the official holds office.

Executive action, anger

Duterte on Feb. 22, 2018 said the ban was his “way of invoking executive action” on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruling stripping Rappler of its corporate personality. A few days later, on March 1, he said he ordered the banning of Rappler because of its “twisted” reporting.

Harry Roque, presidential spokesman at the time, said the SEC order was not yet final since Rappler appealed the ruling. Later, however, the executive secretary corrected him, blaming “miscommunication,” saying the order was already executory and Rappler hadn’t secured a court order to restrain it.

Some SC justice is expected to dwell on the official and personal reason for the order. And that may be more riveting than the argument on free speech and free press and equal protection, which has already been extensively poked into by lawyers, academicians and media.

Dislike of the reporting

Reporters and editors particularly would like to know if a public official’s dislike of a journalist’s reporting and the manner the story is presented would be enough basis to ban the “offenders” legally and constitutionally.

Newsroom managers know public officials can do it, and a few may have done it already. Locally, notably in Cebu City and two other cities, there were incidents of reporters being sent out of the room or banished. But is that OK? What media would like to be certain about is the high tribunal’s position on the public official’s right to choose the media persons covering him.

‘Nambabastos’

Malacañang complained of rudeness (“nambabastos”) by Rappler’s Ranada to the President. Roque used the metaphor of a visitor who is being rude in the house where she is a guest.

Two things: (1) the rudeness Roque referred to must be in the writing and handling of Ranada’s stories in Rappler, not personal behavior towards the President and other Palace officials; (2) Malacañang, or the mayor’s office at City Hall, is not exactly the private home the metaphor suggests. Those are public buildings. Journalists don’t go there to socialize but to collect information for their audiences, whom the same officials also serve.

The SC might not look into the accusation of “bastos” journalism in Rappler. That is a question of fact, which can only be answered by examining the stories Malacañang has complained against. And Roque mentioned only one: the story on the Senate inquiry into the P16 billion Philippine Navy frigate project to which presidential aide, now Sen. Bong Go was allegedly linked.

But even assuming that Rappler erred, would its error justify legally the ban? And should the punitive action afflict her colleagues too, in effect the entire news organization and indefinitely?

Privilege, not a right?

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said last Aug. 15, 2019, the ban on Rappler reporters was justified because “the ability of a media organization to cover events of public interest is a privilege not a right.” And any member of the Malacañang Press Corps can be excluded, Panelo said, if he is “rude or disrespectful.”

Panelo must refer to actual rudeness or disrespect, like exposing bra or dropping pants at a press briefing or in the presence of the President. Not similar to Roque’s reference to “bastos” writing.

But the lawyer presenting the Palace arguments before the SC is the solicitor general, not Panelo or Roque. Would the sol-gen insist on the ban as a right, by itself, as an executive privilege?

And how would that fare in the face of the heavyweight arguments of press freedom and equal protection?


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