Journalists back Rappler plea to end Duterte coverage ban

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 30 2019 12:56 PM | Updated as of May 01 2019 09:55 AM

MANILA – A group of journalists filed a petition with the Supreme Court Tuesday in support of Rappler’s plea to end President Duterte’s directive banning the news website’s reporters from covering his events.

Led by Dr. Florangel Braid, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution and now President Emeritus of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC), and columnists Ceres Doyo, John Nery and Solita Monsod, the group claimed that they, too, are covered by a ban that violates press freedom as it is both arbitrary and constitutes content-based prior restraint.

Other journalists who joined the petition-in-intervention are: Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus, Inday Espina Varona, Vergel Santos, Twink Macaraig, Marites Vitug, Tina Monzon-Palma, among others.

Journalism professors Luis Teodoro and Danilo Arao are also among the petitioners, as is election lawyer Emil Marañon III. In all, 41 journalists signed the petition.

The group cited conflicting statements from Malacañang and the President himself justifying his decision to ban Rapper reporter Pia Ranada from entering Malacañang grounds in February last year.

Ranada was initially told the order came from the Presidential Security Group “Operations.” Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea pointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to revoke Rappler’s license.

Then-Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque gave 3 reasons on 3 different occasions: Rappler’s supposed foreign ownership, the President’s loss of trust in Ranada, and the alleged fake news Rappler was writing which offended the President.

The President himself mentioned Rappler’s “illegitimacy” because of its supposed foreign ownership at one time, only to accuse Rappler and newspapers of twisting his words at another instance.

“The initial and subsequent justifications provided by the President’s then spokesperson clearly reveal the ostensible basis for the ban – the President’s displeasure at Rappler’s and Ms. Ranada’s reporting. The President’s own words on March 1, 2018 confirm this,” petitioners said in the petition.

“The clearest sign that the ban is arbitrary and based only on personal discomfort or displeasure is the account of Ms. Ranada, in the Main Case, that she had actually met with the President at a public function, asked the President to lift the ban, and was told by the President that the lifting of the ban would be contingent on her (Ms. Ranada) voting for one of the President’s preferred senatorial candidates,” they added.

The group also argued the ban is a content-based form of prior restraint, which is not allowed under the Constitution.

Citing the 2008 case of Chavez v. Gonzales decided by the high court, the group said only 4 types of expression may be subject to prior restraint: pornography, false or misleading advertising, advocacy of imminent lawless action and danger to national security. Any expression not falling under any of these 4, the group said, is protected expression not subject to censorship.

“That the ban is directed at content is clear and incapable of dispute…Absent the substantial government interest as well as the ‘clear and present danger,’ the ban constitutes impermissible content-based prior restraint of protected expression,” the group said. 

Rappler, Ranada, and other Rappler journalists filed their petition before the high court on April 11.

Aside from claiming the coverage ban constitutes prior restraint, they also claimed it is a form of subsequent punishment – they are being punished in “retaliation” for the content of their reporting – which creates a chilling effect on other journalists.

They also contended the ban was not “narrowly-tailored” to meet a compelling state interest, in violation of the requirement under the law that restrictions to constitutional rights must be minimal or only to the extent necessary to achieve a purpose.

They also alleged they were singled out and not given the opportunity to contest the ban.

Rappler and its journalists are represented by constitutional law professor John Molo.

The journalists, meanwhile, who filed the petition-in-intervention in support of Rappler are represented by former SC Spokesperson Theodore Te, on behalf of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

Te and FLAG also represent Rappler in the cyberlibel case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng.