CEBU City Administrator Collin N. Rosell has ordered City Hall's department heads, assistant department heads and heads of offices "with executive and enforcement functions" to notify the office of the city mayor and get its "direction" before (a) "attending and responding to any and all invitations, sessions, media appearances," and (b) "making any declarations."

Atty. Rosell didn't mention in his memorandum (#56-04-2023 dated April 25, 2023) the reason for the "mandate" but he wrote me Wednesday, April 26, that the order was "designed to have a clear and uniform direction" and "to avoid public confusion and misinformation," in these "overload times of fake news and illegitimate sources."

MEDIA'S INITIAL RESPONSE. Among the early reactions from the media, which is directly affected by the memo even though it is addressed to City Hall officials only:

[] It qualifies as "a gag order" as it prohibits any department heads and heads of office in the executive department from talking about anything unless he informs the mayor's office first and gets its "direction," euphemism for an order what to say and what not to say.

[] It slows down the process of news gathering and publication as the official still has to secure "clearance and instructions" before he can release any information.

[] It has no measure against the over-zealous or over-cautious official who fears the result of any mistake and tends to withhold even basic data the reporter otherwise routinely gets.

NOT A GAG, SAYS EVIOTA. Cerwin T. Eviota of the mayor's communications staff told me also Wednesday that the memo is "only meant for the staff to attune their message with the direction and purpose of the City, and minimize subject views, and, further, prevent misinformation and ensure clear messaging."

"There is no prohibition, Torni," said Eviota, who also works closely with the city's public information office chief Estela Grace "Jing Kee" Rosit on the city's communications strategy. "There's also none that's not to declare," he said, "only for the office of the mayor to know first and be properly guided."

STANDARD PROCEDURE. No prohibition, echoed Atty. Rosell, saying it's "a standard operating procedure (that) must be observed in public matters and declarations." Besides, he said, the memo is addressed only to officials of the executive department.

Atty. Rosell said the memo's intent goes along with the purpose of the creation of the PIO and the press conferences the mayor regularly holds and his multimedia releases.

ULTRA VIRES? Councilor Mary Ann de los Santos said that "technically speaking," the memo was ultra vires or, she said, "outside the powers and duties of the city administrator." She cited Section 480 of the Local Government Code, which lists a city administrator's functions.

Atty. Rosell signed the memo in his capacity as city administrator, no qualifier that he did so on behalf, or as agent, of the mayor.

'LACKS CLARITY.' A lawyer-journalist, a member of Cebu Media Legal Aid (Cemla), noted that some parts of the memo are vague, even confusing.

Aside from the blanket prohibition on "making any declarations," it forbids attending "any and all invitations and sessions." What invitation or session? Would attending a birthday party, a class or family reunion count, the Cemla lawyer asked.

The word "media" qualifies only "appearances" and doesn't cover the words "invitation" and "session." Does the memo mean that at "any and all" such invitations and sessions, the city official cannot "make any declaration"?

BEING SPECIFIC AND QUICK. Atty. Rosell may be open to making the memo more specific. But he clings to the tell-the-mayor requirement. He said "it might be awkward for the mayor's office to be uninformed while subordinates are already making public declarations."

His corrective step, which I saw as a promise: "We will just adopt quickness in notifying (the mayor) and (making the) public declaration -- to address everything."

MARY ANN'S 'BUT.' Councilor de los Santos agreed with Atty. Rosell and Eviota on the matter of purpose. She said the memo perhaps aims to "ensure that the City Government presents a unified and consistent message to the media and the public." But, de los Santos said, "the approach may slow down responses to emerging issues" and "decrease transparency and accountability."

Less kindly, de los Santos told me Wednesday that the order is "symptomatic of a city administration that is not well-organized and coherent," particularly on its "objectives and priorities."

"Tight control of messaging," she said, may signal "underlying issues within the administration, such as lack of trust in department heads and key officials, absence of clear communication strategies, and a history of inconsistent messaging from those at the top."