Philippine anti-terrorism law

Bulatlat losing half its readers to ‘terror’ block, but judge says that’s not urgent

Lian Buan
Bulatlat losing half its readers to ‘terror’ block, but judge says that’s not urgent

AT WORK. Bulatlat journalist Carlo Manalansan interviewing an Aeta woman from the communities in Capas, Tarlac, affected by the construction of the disputed New Clark City.

Courtesy of Bulatlat.com

Esperon's lawyer Ferdinand Topacio wants to implead the anti-terror council for an act that the former national security adviser may have done on his own

MANILA, Philippines – Barely a month since access to its website was blocked by the Duterte government’s last-minute crackdown moves, news site Bulatlat.com has lost half of its readership, but this development still failed to get an immediate relief from the court as a judge in Quezon City said the problem was “not urgent.”

Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Dolly Jose Bolante-Prado denied Bulatlat’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) Wednesday, July 13, which was supposed to be the quick remedy for the websites which former national security adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon Jr. asked the National Telecommunications (NTC) to block for alleged links to groups the government had designated as terrorists under the anti-terror law.

The anti-terror law’s designation clause does not mention anything about blocking websites to the designated groups, more so to allegedly “affiliated” groups like what Esperon claimed Bulatlat to be. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines had called this blocking “bereft of legal basis” and an “embarrassment” to the government.

But because some browsers have the ability to bypass the blocks put in place by internet service providers (ISPs), some users can still access Bulatlat’s website. The judge on Wednesday was still able to access the website and cited this in her order.

In her written order, Judge Prado said: “The Court itself was able to gain access to the plaintiff’s website. 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.”

Bulatlat managing editor Len Olea said that according to data from Google analytics, “we have noted nearly 50% drop in the unique visitors.”

A quick and informal survey by Rappler on Twitter showed that out of 56 users, 36 could not access the website spanning all major ISPs.

“One less [person who can access] is significant in a sea of disinformation and misinformation,” said Olea. Bulatlat.com is a long-established news group covering human rights and issues of marginalized groups.

The main case, however, will continue as only the TRO was junked. A hearing has been set for August 2, and Bulatlat’s lawyer Minnie Lopez was hoping they could still vie for a preliminary injunction.

Bulatlat’s main petition is for the court to nullify Esperon’s letter to the NTC, and the latter’s memorandum to ISPs. They argue that it is a form of unconstitutional prior restraint, or regulating the content even before it is put out.

Bulatlat is demanding a symbolic P1 worth of damages from the case.

Was the anti-terror council involved or not?

Ferdinand Topacio, Esperon’s lawyer, said after the hearing that Bulatlat should have impleaded the anti-terror council (ATC) “sapagkat sa ATC po nagmula ‘yung order sa NTC na i-block po ang site (because it was the ATC which ordered the NTC to block the site).”

But whether the ATC – an inter-agency body – was involved or whether Esperon did it on his own was an issue before. Esperon’s letter to the NTC was prefaced on his being NSA, and not a member of the anti-terror council.

Former justice undersecretary Adrian Sugay, the representative of former secretary Menardo Guevarra in the council, said before the transition to the Marcos government that “the request in question emanated not from the Anti-Terrorism Council, but from the National Security Council.”

Topacio claims that because Esperon used the ATC resolutions designating the “affiliate” groups, the ATC should be impleaded.

Wala namang problema sa amin kung ku-kuwestiyunin ninyo ang ATC bilang parte rin para may due process, ready naman kaming ipagtanggol ang actions ng pamahalaan,” said Topacio.

(We have no problem if they question the ATC as a part of this also, for due process, we are ready to defend the government’s actions.)

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said “that was not yet our time but I have asked Usec Deo Marco to help me look into this.” Marco was among the undersecretaries of the Guevarra-led DOJ, and seems to have been retained by Remulla. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.