NCRPO restricts Rappler coverage after story on Sinas birthday party

Rappler.com
Rappler condemns the move as an attack on press freedom, the right to free speech, and the public's right to know

MANILA, Philippines – The National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) has restricted Rappler’s coverage after it published the story of NCRPO chief Major General Debold Sinas violating quarantine protocols by celebrating his birthday with fellow cops inside Camp Bagong Diwa on May 8.

Rambo Talabong, Rappler’s reporter covering the Philippine National Police (PNP), was removed from the NCRPO’s official Viber group channel on Wednesday afternoon, May 13 by NCRPO’s public information officer Britz Estadilla.

This was a day after Rappler published a story with photos from the NCRPO Facebook page showing Sinas allowing a surprise party for him on his birthday. (READ: LOOK: Birthday salu-salo for NCRPO chief Sinas amid ECQ)

The photos showed Sinas blowing a birthday cake, the cops serenading him and handing him roses, and them dining together—all at close distance, violating quarantine rules on physical distancing.

In a statement, Rappler condemned the removal of Talabong from the NCRPO Viber group.

“This act on the part of the NCRPO PIO constitutes prior restraint on the freedom of the press and the right to free speech. By removing Mr. Talabong from the channel where a government office communicates and coordinates with journalists, the NCRPO is impairing Rappler’s ability to serve the public’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to know,” it said.

It added: “We expect the NCRPO leadership and its PIO to approach and resolve this matter responsibly and professionally. Mr. Talabong did nothing wrong but truthfully report what happened – all part of his job as a journalist. The photos attest to that. We therefore insist that Mr. Talabong be reinstated in the NCRPO Press Corps Viber channel as soon as possible.”

OFFICIAL PHOTOS. The photos reported by Rappler are all from the NCRPO's official Facebook page. The post on Sinas' birthday has been deleted since. Rappler screenshot

BREAKING RULES. The photos show cops violating social distancing rules and the ban on mass gatherings under quarantine. Rappler screenshot

The story, as well as stories done by other news outlets, sparked backlash online against Sinas.

No less than Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año said what Sinas and his personnel had done was “a big no-no” and that Sinas should have pulled the plug on the gimmick as soon as it started.

Sinas has since apologized for the incident, but he now faces a probe by the police Internal Affairs Service, as ordered by top cop General Archie Gamboa.

This adds to incidents of government agencies restricting access to Rappler over its critical coverage of the government.

Since February 2017, Malacañang has banned Rappler from entering the Palace complex and covering all events attended by President Rodrigo Duterte after it published a story linking his then aide Bong Go to a controversial multibillion-peso project to acquire Philippine warships. (READ: Rappler asks Supreme Court to end Duterte coverage ban)

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has also removed then excluded Talabong from its official Viber group since August 2018, after Rappler published a story related to over billions worth of shabu being smuggled in the Philippines.

Read Rappler’s full statement below:

“Rappler takes issue with the removal on Wednesday afternoon, May 13, of our reporter, Mr. Rambo Talabong, from the Viber group for journalists covering the National Capital Region Police Office.

“This was after Mr. Talabong broke the story that NCRPO chief Major General Debold Sinas held a birthday party at the police headquarters in Camp Bagong Diwa, in violation of the government’s own lockdown rules due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Photos from the May 8 gathering were uploaded on the NCRPO’s official Facebook account, and were taken down on May 13 after Rappler and other news outlets reported about it on May 12.

“Interior Secretary Eduardo Año himself pointed out the lapse committed by Sinas. Philippine National Police chief Archie Gamboa ordered an investigation  into the incident. Sinas apologized for allowing his men to violate the ban on mass gathering. Then Major Britz Estadilla, NCRPO’s public information officer, removed Mr. Talabong from the “NCRPO Press Corps” Viber group.

“This act on the part of the NCRPO PIO constitutes prior restraint on the freedom of the press and the right to free speech. By removing Mr. Talabong from the channel where a government office communicates and coordinates with journalists, the NCRPO is impairing Rappler’s ability to serve the public’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to know.

“We expect the NCRPO leadership and its PIO to approach and resolve this matter responsibly and professionally. Our reporter did nothing but truthfully report what happened – all part of his job as a journalist. The photos attest to that. Mr. Talabong should be reinstated in the NCRPO Press Corps Viber channel immediately. There is no justifiable reason why he should not be.”

 – Rappler.com