The Supreme Court (SC) announced on Wednesday, April 6, that it lifted key restrictions in the coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates, allowing media companies to livestream the events.
In a 14-0 vote during its en banc session in Baguio City on Tuesday, April 5, the SC granted the petition of Rappler to stop Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista from restricting online access to the debates. (Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe is on leave and thus did not vote.)
The presidential and vice presidential debates can now be “shown or live streamed unaltered in petitioner’s and other websites subject to the copyright condition that the source is clearly indicated,” the High Court said.
This was not allowed in the first two presidential debates that were held in Cagayan de Oro on February 21, and Cebu on March 20, with the Comelec and media organizers citing the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) as basis for the restrictions.
Interpreting the MOA differently, the SC stressed that the agreement, signed by Bautista and 8 media organizations, including Rappler, “recognizes the public function of the debates and the need for the widest possible dissemination of the debates.”
In the resolution penned by SC Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, the Court said: “The political nature of the national debates and the public’s interest in the wide availability of the information for the voters’ education certainly justify allowing the debates to be shown or streamed in other websites for wider dissemination, in accordance with the MOA.” Justice Marvic Leonen issued a separate concurring opinion. (READ: Comelec chair discriminated vs Internet-based media – Leonen)
The Court added: “The freedom of the press to report and disseminate the live audio of the debates…can no longer be infringed or subject to prior restraint,” the Court said. “Such freedom of the press to report and disseminate the live audio of debates is now protected and guaranteed” by the Constitution.
Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa said, “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the freedom of the press. Because of this decision, all sites will now be able to livestream the vice presidential debate on Sunday, April 10, and the last presidential debate on April 24. This will allow viewers to watch the debates on their preferred online platforms. We look forward to working with Comelec in the lead up to the crucial 2016 elections.”
Takes effect immediately
The High Court said that its resolution takes effect immediately due to time constraints.
There are only two debates left – the vice presidential debate on Sunday, April 10 (organized by CNN Philippines and BusinessMirror), and the third and final presidential debate on April 24 (organized by ABS-CBN and the Manila Bulletin).
In only partially granting the Rappler petition, the SC chose not to nullify the specific provisions that Rappler wanted nullified in its suit against Bautista.
The provision covered in the SC resolution is the following portion from the MOA:
- Part VI (C), paragraph 19
- Online streaming. Subject to copyright conditions or separate negotiations with the Lead Networks, allow the debates they have produced to be shown or streamed on other web sites
The MOA, according to the SC, has “not reserved or withheld the reproduction of the debates to the public but has in fact expressly allowed the reproduction of the debates” subject to the condition that the source is clearly indicated.
Last February 21, ahead of the first presidential debate (organized by GMA-7 and the Philippine Daily Inquirer), Rappler had filed a lawsuit against the Comelec chief.
Rappler pointed out that certain provisions in the MOA granted broadcast rights to the presidential and vice presidential debates only to the country’s biggest networks – to the detriment of all other media outlets, including the government-owned PTV4.
Aside from Part VI (C), paragraph 19, Rappler also questioned the following provision:
- Part VI (D), paragraph 20
- News reporting and fair use. Allow a maximum of two minutes of excerpt from the debates they have produced to be used for news reporting or fair use by other media or entities as allowed by the copyright law: Provided, that the use of excerpts longer than two minutes shall be subject to the consent of the Lead Network concerned.
These two provisions were not nullified by the Court, as sought by Rappler. But the Court order in effect lifts the livestreaming restrictions imposed by the Comelec and media organizers on the debates based on these provisions.
In filing the case against Bautista, Rappler said: “By discriminating against Rappler, its constitutional right to equal protection has been violated. That the discrimination was aimed at restraining Rappler’s free press rights makes the violation all the more reprehensible.”
Media companies, including Rappler, had signed a MOA with the Comelec to mount a series of national debates ahead of the May polls.
Rappler pointed out that “online news groups were excluded from the MOA in terms of coverage and live video streaming rights – a MOA Rappler signed based on good faith assurances that access would be granted. That didn’t happen.” – Rappler.com
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