43 pct visitors lost: Bulatlat asks QC court to reverse denial of TRO vs NTC

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 22 2022 02:21 PM | Updated as of Jul 22 2022 02:36 PM

Bulatlat questions the NTC’s order blocking access to over 20 websites before the Quezon City RTC, July 8, 2022. Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News/file
Bulatlat questions the NTC’s order blocking access to over 20 websites before the Quezon City RTC, July 8, 2022. Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA — Independent media website Bulatlat has asked a Quezon City court to reconsider a ruling denying its bid to stop the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) order to block access to more than 20 websites.

In an urgent motion for reconsideration filed Friday, Bulatlat urged QC Regional Trial Court Branch 306 Judge Dolly Rose Bolante-Prado to revisit her ruling last week. 

The judge declined to issue the TRO because there was supposedly no suppression of free speech and there was no irreparable damage, considering that she was able to access Bulatlat’s website on her phone.

The lawyers for defendants NTC, National Security Council (NSC) and former National Security Adviser Hermogenes, Esperon, Jr. were also able to access the website during the TRO hearing, while Bulatlat’s managing editor Ronalyn Olea and lawyer Minnie Lopez could not.

“While Defendants’ counsel were able to access Bulatlat.com for some unknown reason, the fact remains that the blocking is still in place pursuant to the assailed Memorandum,” Bulatlat said, noting that it lost 43 percent of its monthly visitors. 

Prior to the blocking order, Bulatlat.com recorded an average of 54,907 monthly unique visitors which went down to 31,136 from June 8 to July 7, 2022.

The NTC blocking order was issued on June 8 while the letter from NSC’s Esperon was dated June 6.

“The number of lost Bulatlat.com readers is rather critical and, with due respect, quite the opposite of this Honorable Court’s observation that the same is ‘of no moment,’ ‘irrelevant’ and a mere ‘inconvenience.’ It demonstrates that Defendants’ design to censor Bulatlat.com through the assailed Memorandum has succeeded to a significant extent,” Bulatlat said.

A quick survey it conducted on Twitter showed subscribers of Globe, PLDT, Smart and Converge could not access the site. 

“It is indubitable that Bulatlat.com is not accessible to a significant section of the public. Hence, contrary to the Honorable Court’s finding, there is a clear suppression of Plaintiff’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” the motion said.

“If such invasion is not enjoined pending the adjudication of the instant case on the merits, the circulation of Bulatlat.com will continue to be restricted on the internet, with Plaintiff standing to lose more of its readers,” it added.

Bulatlat argued the court’s ruling should not be based on whether an electronic device can access its website at any given time but on whether an impediment imposed by the NTC order is valid.

It asserted that the blocking of its website was content-based prior restraint — a violation of freedom of expression — which could only be justified if it overcomes strict scrutiny and the clear and present danger rule, based on a determination by a court.

In freedom of expression cases, government action that imposes prior restraint is presumed unconstitutional unless it is shown that there is a clear and present danger of an evil that must be prevented and that there is a substantial interest on the part of the government.

That interest must not be related to suppression of free expression and must not go beyond what is necessary to meet that governmental interest.

“Bulatlat.com’s news reports and commentaries seek to reflect the Filipino people’s views and stand on such paramount issues as human rights, civil liberties, national patrimony, environment, and the rights and welfare of marginalized sectors. These are political expressions that must remain uninhibited, robust, wide open and are deserving of utmost protection,” the website argued. 

“[T]he assailed Memorandum is presumed unconstitutional and has been shown to be in breach of the rule, which recognizes no exception, that there can be no content-based prior restraint on protected expression,” it added.

Esperon had asked NTC to block the website of Bulatlat and 26 other websites, claiming that they are affiliated with or support communist rebel groups. 

He cited 3 resolutions of the Anti-Terrorism Council designating the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New Peoples’ Army and the National Democratic Front and some of their alleged members as terrorists.

But Bulatlat said it was neither an affiliate or supporter of the 3 groups, nor was it named in the ATC’s resolutions.

It challenged the NTC order claiming the regulator has no power, whether under its own law and rules or under the Anti-Terrorism Act, to block access to websites. 

The only consequence of being designated as a terrorist under the law is for authorities to freeze bank accounts.

Bulatlat also complained it was not afforded due process because it was not allowed to present contrary evidence before the blocking order was issued and implemented.

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