Quezon City court denies Bulatlat’s TRO plea vs NTC order to block websites

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 13 2022 03:58 PM

MANILA — A Quezon City court has denied the plea for a temporary restraining order (TRO) filed by independent media website Bulatlat against the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) order blocking access to some 20 websites allegedly linked to communist rebels.

Judge Dolly Rose Bolante-Prado of QC Regional Trial Court Branch 36 declined to issue the TRO after finding, during a hearing on Wednesday morning, that she could still access the website on her phone.

Bulatlat had filed on Friday a complaint against the NTC and the National Security Council (NSC), urging the court to stop and nullify the regulator's order which, the news organization said, limited access of its readers to mirror sites.

The website claimed unique viewership of its content went down by 43 percent.

It argued that the NTC order, prompted by an NSC request signed by former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., violated the right to freedom of expression and that the regulator has no power, whether under its own law and rules or under the Anti-Terrorism Act, to order the blocking of access to websites.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Bulatlat managing editor Ronalyn Olea and one of its lawyers Minnie Lopez, tried to show the judge that they were unable to access the website using their own phones.

“We reiterate our position that our constitutional rights are violated here because we cannot distribute our content to the widest audience possible. And as our lawyer stated earlier, the web visitors dropped by a significant 43 percent to 50 percent since the order of the NTC to block our websites,” Olea told the media after the hearing.

Court denies Bulatlat TRO plea vs order to block websites 1
Court denies Bulatlat TRO plea vs order to block websites 2

QC RTC Branch 306’s order denying Bulatlat’s TRO plea, saying there is “no suppression of constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech” and there is “no irreparable damage.”

QC RTC Branch 306’s order denying Bulatlat’s TRO plea, saying there is “no suppression of constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech” and there is “no irreparable damage.”

But Bolante-Prado denied the TRO plea citing the lack of urgency because some can still access the website.

“The Court is of the view that the requisites for the issuance of a TRO are not present in the case at bar. Obviously, the Court itself was able to gain access to the plaintiff’s website,” she said in her order denying the TRO. 

The judge continued, “The Court noted that the plaintiff was able to publish the latest news and its commentaries on recent issues of public interest. Its website is still accessible to the public, hence, there is clearly no suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.” 

“Consequently, there is no irreparable damage, as defined by law, to speak of. The plaintiff’s counsel’s claim that the number of that number of bulatlat.com’s visitors was reduced, is of no moment. The inconvenience, if any, that was caused by the questioned Memorandum to the plaintiff is irrelevant. What is clear is that bulatlat.com, as revealed today, can still publish online and is accessible to its audience,” she added.

Ferdinand Topacio, lawyer of Esperon, said that aside from the judge, the clerk of court and his team were also able to access the website.

It is not immediately clear why some phones could access Bulatlat’s website while others could not. It is the internet service providers who are tasked to comply with the NTC’s order.

In the same hearing, Topacio questioned the absence of the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) among the respondents. 

He said Esperon’s request to NTC to block the websites was allegedly to implement the ATC resolutions designating the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front, and some of its alleged members as terrorists.

“Yung liham na yun ay base sa tatlong resolusyon ng ATC. Kaya nga sabi namin, wala namang problema sa amin kung ku-kwestiyunin nyo yung ATC pero isali nyo bilang party para may due process,” he said.

(That letter is based on 3 resolutions of the ATC. That is why we said we have no problem if you question the ATC, but include them as party so that there is due process.) 

But Frank Lloyd Tiongson, lawyer for Bulatlat, argued there is no need to implead the ATC because it was the National Security Council (NSC) headed by Esperon, not ATC, which issued the directive to block the websites.

“There was no reason to implead the ATC because as far as we are concerned and with the previous declaration of the ATC that they had no hand in the blocking order as well as there is no basis in the law for then to order such a blocking order, there is no reason to implead the NTC,” he said. 

Tiongson clarified that the denial of the TRO does not affect the main case which is to nullify the NTC order. 

However, parties were required to submit on Monday, July 18, a memorandum discussing whether an action for nullification of the NTC order is proper.

“We are glad to have a declaration earlier that it appears prima facie that the conclusion made by the former National Security Adviser in his June 8, 2022 letter to the NTC was rather whimsical because there was no basis at all,” he said.

“If they are citing the ATC resolutions, we have pointed out before the court that there’s no indication that Bulatlat.com and Alipato Media Center is a designated entity and we have also raised the decision of the Supreme Court in Calleja vs. Executive Secretary that concluded that the only result of the terrorist designation is the freezing of the assets,” he added.

Bulatlat has denied any communist links or wrongdoing. 

Topacio declined to comment on the merits of the case.

The next hearing for the injunction sought by Bulatlat against the NTC order is set on August 2 at 1:30 p.m. 

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