'Still censored': Bulatlat presents more witnesses unable to access website after NTC blocking order

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 03 2022 01:25 AM

MANILA — Almost two months since the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered the blocking of access to over 20 websites linked to terrorist-designated groups, an independent media website asserted in court on Tuesday it continues to be inaccessible to some of its readers despite an earlier contrary finding by the court.

Ronalyn Olea, managing editor of Bulatlat.com, testified before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 306 to support their plea for the court to issue an injunction order stopping the implementation of the NTC blocking order.

"So hanggang ngayon po ay in effect pa rin yung NTC memorandum blocking Bulatlat.com. The defense lawyers tried to prove that we can still continue our operations and that we can still publish content but that does not diminish the fact that we are still censored in our own country," Olea told ABS-CBN News shortly after the hearing.

The same court, last month, denied their plea for a temporary restraining order, saying there was neither suppression of free speech nor irrepararable damage because Judge Dolly Rose Bolante-Prado was able to access Bulatlat's website on her phone.

Bulatlat has asked Bolante-Prado to reconsider this ruling, aside from asking for a much-longer injunction order.

Bulatlat said it lost 43 percent of its unique visitors since the NTC issued the order on June 8.

Olea claimed in her affidavit that the blocking of Bulatlat.com “violates and continues to violate Plaintiff’s freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the people’s right to information, and seriously damages Bulatlat.com's standing in the community as a credible and reputable alternative media outfit.”

To support Bulatlat's claim, it submitted the affidavits of 3 of its reader-subscribers who said they had not been able to access Bulatlat's website since June 21.

Veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona said she relies on Bulatlat for alternative views on issues such as agrarian reform, human rights and the environment and was angered by NTC’s order because of the "vague and nonsensical" reason given for the blocking.

Human rights worker and UP Baguio lecturer Vaughn Alviar meanwhile said the blocking order made it difficult for him to conduct human rights research and deprived his communication students of access to diverse perspectives on an issue.

Urban poor leader Eufemia Doringo considered the blocking of Bulatlat's website a big loss since many of the issues it covers are not usually covered by mainstream media.

"[K]ahit pa may partial access yung iba naming readers, hindi mabubura yung fact na naglabas sila ng isang order na unconstitutional dahil pinipigilan nito ang aming mga readers na ma-access yung aming articles and other content sa aming website," Olea said.

The NTC blocking order was based on a letter from then-National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. to the NTC dated June 6 which tagged Bulatlat and other websites as either affiliated with or supportive of groups earlier designated by the Anti-Terrorism Council as terrorists such as the New People's Army, the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National Democratic Front and some of its alleged leaders.

But Bulatlat pointed out, it is neither affiliated nor supportive of these organizations, was not among the groups designated as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council, and designation only comes with the authority to freeze assets of designated terrorists, not block access to websites.

The Department of Justice and the ATC have distanced themselves from Esperon's letter, saying only the National Security Council (NSC), which Esperon then headed, was involved in the issue.

The website's lawyer, Cristina Yambot from the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers said what happened to Bulatlat is indicative of the extent authorities could go in misusing the Anti-Terrorism Act.

"Nakikita namin dito yung isang danger na rin kung paano ininterpret ng government yung Anti-Terrorism Act na matagal na rin naming sinasabi na dangerous itong Anti-Terror law na ito sa freedom of expression, freedom of the press at sa ngayon nga, nakikita natin yung manifestation nito, kung papaano nila iniimplement," she said.

"Kahit di naman judicially-designated as terrorists, naparatangan lamang na affiliated daw sa terrorists or supporting daw terrorists ay kagyat na binlock na yung website without due process of law. So ito na nga po yung kinakatakot naming effects kung paano iimplement ng estado itong Anti-Terror law," she added.

The court has given Bulatlat 1 day to submit its formal offer of documentary evidence while respondents NTC and its commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, the NSC and Esperon were also given 1 day to file their comment. 

The case would then be submitted for resolution.

Aside from asking for a TRO and an injunction, Bulatlat had also asked the court to nullify the NTC's blocking order.