Bulatlat asks court to nullify NTC order blocking its website

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 08 2022 08:05 PM

Bulatlat on July 8 questioned the NTC’s order blocking access to over 20 websites before the Quezon City RTC. Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News
Bulatlat on July 8 questioned the NTC’s order blocking access to over 20 websites before the Quezon City RTC. Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — Independent media website Bulatlat has taken the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to court over its order directing internet service providers (ISPs) to block 27 websites allegedly linked to communist rebel groups.

In a complaint filed Friday morning, Alipato Media Center, which publishes Bulatlat, asked the Quezon City Regional Trial Court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop the enforcement of the NTC Order.

It also asks the court to nullify the NTC order and to award it a symbolic P1.00 exemplary damages.

Aside from the NTC and its commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, named as respondents to the complaint were the National Security Council and former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., who signed the letter-request to the NTC. 

Bulatlat was represented by its managing editor, Ronalyn Olea, and accompanied by lawyers from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, as well as press freedom advocates from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

They brought with them a tarpaulin bearing the words “Journalism is not Terrorism.”

“So pag sinasabi naming ‘Journalism is not Terrorism, ang ibig naming sabihin nito ay hayaan niyo ‘yung media na gawin ang kanyang tungkulin. Hindi dapat ituring na terorismo yung paglalathala ng ibang grupo na taliwas ng narrative ng nakaupo sa kapangyarihan,” Olea said after the filing of the complaint. 

In their 11-page complaint, Bulatlat asked the Quezon City court to issue a TRO, claiming that their clear and unmistakable right to publish news, analyses, investigative reports and commentaries have been irreparably damaged by the NTC’s order blocking access to their website — a material and substantial invasion of their right — and there’s no other speedy remedy other than ask for a TRO.

Olea said that ever since their main portal was blocked, unique viewership of their content went down by 43%. 

Bulatlat remains accessible through mirror sites.

In seeking to nullify the NTC order, Bulatlat argued NTC has no power to block websites, as it is not mentioned in the 1979 executive order creating it nor in the 1995 law which designated it as the principal administrator of the Public Telecommunications Act of the Philippines.

“Being ultra vires, the NTC’s order to Philippines ISPs to block Bulatlat.com, the other websites listed in the letter-request of Defendant Esperson, which formed an integral part of the questioned Memorandum, is illegal. As such, it stands to be nullified by this Honorable Court,” it said.

Bulatlat also said the NTC order is an infringement on its freedom of expression as the website does not pose a clear and present danger to justify the blocking of access to its website.

“Plaintiff has not just committed, is not actually committing and is not attempting to commit a crime. Its website has not been used, is not being used, and is not intended to be used in the commission of a crime. It also does not contain any incitement to imminent lawless action, pornography, and false or misleading advertisement. Neither does it espouse a danger to national security,” it argued.

Bulatlat said Esperon’s only bases for including Bulatlat in the request for blocking of websites is the citation of 3 resolutions designating the New Peoples’ Army, the National Democratic Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines as terrorists. 

“Plaintiff is not a designated terrorist entity, not to mention that the blocking of a website is not sanctioned by the ATA as one of the consequences of being designated as a terrorist,” it said.

“Besides, the NTC has no power, as stated above, to order the blocking of a website of an entity alleged to be ‘affiliated to’ or ‘supporting terrorists and terrorist organizations’ without judicial imprimatur,” it added. 

Bulatlat also accused the NTC of violating its right to due process when it unilaterally blocked its website without giving it notice and the right to be heard. 

NTC also allegedly usurped judicial prerogatives by imposing access restrictions.

Bulatlat further claimed it was deprived of its property without due process and asked for P1 exemplary damages because of the injury to its reputation.

Bulatlat’s website was founded in 2001 by veteran journalists and human rights defenders.

Olea said they decided to file the case because other news outfits could soon be tagged as communist fronts.

“We have no choice but to confront this head on kasi otherwise, baka magtuloy-tuloy ito, or worse, gawin nila ito sa ibang media outfits,” she said.

Jonathan de Santos, NUJP national chairperson, questioned the manner by which the Bulatlat was included in the NSC’s list.

“Kung titingnan natin kung pano nila ginawa ito…basically sinabi lang nila, we believe na may terrorist links, affiliated or supporting terrorist-designated groups. Wala namang process para sagutin kunyari ng mga websites na nilista…They didn’t even know na blocked sila, they had to ask sa mga ISPs ano nangyari…Kung walang pushback dito, very likely na ulitin siya uli,” he said. 

NUPL’s Frank Lloyd Tiongson said it’s important to stop a government agency’s use of a non-existent, “imaginary power.”

“It’s very alarming from the perspective of human rights lawyers that the National Security Adviser or any government agency for that matter is able to wield that kind of influence — I’m not even saying power because there’s no such power conferred on these institutions or offices under the Constitution or under the law. It’s wielding some sort of imaginary power, it’s arrogating unto itself an imaginary power to police expression and speech. And that is very alarming for us human rights lawyers because it’s a slippery slope from there,” he said.

“If they can get away with these actions, it’s a slippery slope. We start with the journalists and then who’s next? That would be human rights defenders, organizations, ordinary activists, ordinary citizens,” he added.

Olea and Tiongson are optimistic that the change of leadership at the NSC will lead to a reversal of Esperon’s memorandum.

National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos had previously said she’s not in favor of red-tagging as it is counterproductive.

“Of course we welcome her statement and we hope that that can be translated into action by, of course, nullifying the NTC memo and enjoining other government agencies not to undertake unconstitutional orders such as this one,” she said, adding that they intend to reach out to Carlos herself.

Aside from Bulatlat, websites of progressive groups were included in the list of 27 websites for blocking with the Communist Party of the Philippines declaring only 7 are actually affiliated with their organization.

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