Rappler asks Supreme Court to end Duterte coverage ban

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Rappler, its reporters, and regional correspondents filed on Thursday, April 11, a petition before the Supreme Court seeking an end to President Rodrigo Duterte’s coverage ban against them. (STATEMENT: With Rappler ban, Duterte also violates public right to know)

Duterte’s ban against Rappler has been in effect for 14 months now, barring Rappler reporters from covering his public events. Rappler’s Malacañang reporter Pia Ranada, who is an accredited member of the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC), remains barred from entering the Palace.

The ban started on February 20, 2018, when Ranada was stopped by Presidential Security Group (PSG) Corporal Mark Cempron from entering the Malacañang complex, where the MPC press office is located.

Various reasons have been provided by Malacañang and Duterte himself for the ban, including the revocation of Rappler’s license to operate, a case which has been remanded by the Court of Appeals to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for review. 

Since February 2018, there have been 7 other instances where Rappler reporters aside from Ranada were kicked out of coverages, including the April 2018 Palarong Pambansa sports event which was held in Ilocos Sur.

Before reaching the Supreme Court, or the court of last resort, Rappler said its managers had reached out through letters to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Press Secretary Martin Andanar to end the coverage ban.

“Despite this letter, the Petitioners were not able to receive any reply from the offices of said government officials,” said the Rappler reporters in their petition.

The petition was filed by Ranada and Rappler colleagues Camille Elemia, Mara Cepeda, and Ralf Rivas, along with regional correspondents Bobby Lagsa, Raymon Dullana, Frank Cimatu, and Mauricio Victa – all of whom have experienced being excluded or kicked out from coverages.

The petition was filed against the "Office of the President, Office of the Executive Secretary, Presidential Communications Operations office, Media Accreditation."

Press freedom test case

The petition for certiorari filed by Rappler journalists also asks for a writ of preliminary mandatory injunction to lift the ban as soon as possible.

A significant press freedom test case under the Duterte administration, Rappler argues that the coverage ban is a violation of the constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.

Duterte once said about Rappler: “Do not f*** with me. Mahirap kasi ‘pag palabas ‘yan, kita mo ‘yung mga newspaper, mga Rappler. Iba itong speech ko ngayon. Bukas, iba ang presentation niyan. Kaya bawal ngayon sila. That is my order. Do not talk to people who will produce lies out of your statements. And who can twist it forever to the angle that they would like it to.” 

(Do not f*** with me. The problem with these newspapers and these Rappler reporters, I say something in my speech now, tomorrow they present it differently. That's why I'm banning them now.)

By Duterte’s pronouncements alone, the coverage ban could extend beyond Rappler to anyone whom the President might find to be “untruthful.”

“Petitioners humbly implore the Court not to abdicate its sworn duty as the protector of Constitutional rights and its guarantees,” the petition said.

Arguments of the petition

Rappler petitioners said this is a case of first impression, which the Supreme Court should settle in the name of press freedom.

“It is crucial to resolve the question of whether the Executive Branch can, on their personal assessment, characterize an entire news organization as "fake news" or are supposedly made up of journalists who are "liars" to justify a decision to exclude them from covering any event involving its officials, including the Chief Executive, his Cabinet, and agents even if said events are held in public places or are open to the general public (such as a campaign rally),” said the petition.

Aside from constitutional guarantees as well as guarantees under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Rappler reporters cited several Supreme Court rulings to boost their case.

In arguing that the coverage ban is tantamount to prior restraint, Rappler reporters cited Chavez vs Gonzales, a case where the SC declared unconstitutional government warnings against news organizations that published contents of the Hello Garci tape.

In that decision, the SC said: “Any law or official that requires some form of permission to be had before publication can be made, commits an infringement of the constitutional right, and remedy can be had at the courts.” 

Another case is Diocese of Bacolod vs Commission on Elections (Comelec), where the SC decided in favor of the Diocese of Bacolod, allowing the parish to display tarpaulins of candidates with labels of either Team Patay or Team Buhay (Team Death or Team Life) depending on their stance on the RH Law.

In that decision, the SC said the Comelec’s directive for the parish to take down the tarpaulins “could result in a chilling effect that would affect other citizens who want their voices heard.”

“Any regulation that has reporters thinking twice whether they will be banned is injurious. Even assuming that the State has the power to regulate the press, such exercise of power can only be done within clear, pre-defined and discernible limits,” said the petition.

Presidential power

In Duterte-interest cases that have reached the Supreme Court, those that the government won upheld presidential power or discretion, such as the case of martial law in Mindanao.

The same is in question for this case, as Rappler argued that Duterte’s invocation of his executive power to choose the journalists who can cover him is not limitless.

“Administrative or executive acts, orders and regulations shall be valid only when they are not contrary to the laws or the Constitution,” said Rappler, citing Article 7 of the Civil Code.

Rappler said that even if the ban does not violate the Constitution, the ban “remains void as an invalid invocation of the Chief Executive’s residual power.”

Rappler said that pursuant to Gonzales vs Marcos, residual powers “can only be invoked when there is an urgent necessity that should be addressed immediately or that threatens the existence of government.”

“Respondents have not shown that the Petitioners are national security threats which require suppression to prevent immediate lawless violence. The ban imposed has no plausible connection with any other executive power such as the power to appoint, to conduct foreign relations, to contract foreign loans or to grant executive clemency,” said the petition.

Rappler said that the coverage ban is a grave abuse of discretion committed by Malacañang that the Supreme Court must correct. Rappler also pointed out the lack of a written order for the ban, which makes it all the more “arbitrary.”

Rappler cited the recent decision of the SC to declare unconstitutional the justice department’s travel ban against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo because of lack of legal basis supporting it.

“The ban is arbitrary because there are no perceived limits which can serve as checks on how the decision-maker will define its scope nor how law enforcers will implement it,” said the petition.

It also said: “The ban's lifting now cannot mend a year's worth of limited press coverage but may stop the continuing destruction of the free press by the Respondents. Thus, there is an urgent need for the Honorable Court to intervene to prevent the continuing implementation of the patently illegal acts of the Respondents.”

Malacañang responded to the move by saying anyone can file such a petition in a "free country" like the Philippines.

"It’s a free country. We do not interfere with the judiciary," said Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo. Rappler.com

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.

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