Cagayan de Oro City

Media group, law firm forge pact to aid harassed Cagayan de Oro journalists

Franck Dick Rosete

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Media group, law firm forge pact to aid harassed Cagayan de Oro journalists

COLLABORATE. Cagayan de Oro Press Club president Froilan Gallardo (seated, middle) signs collaboration agreements with a law firm represented by lawyer and ex-congressman Carlos Isagani Zarate (right) and lawyer Ernesto Neri (left) of the Movement Against Disinformation while other local media leaders look on.

Franck Dick Rosete/Rappler

The 73-year-old media organization and another group, the Movement Against Disinformation, also agree to collaborate against disinformation in Cagayan de Oro

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – One of the oldest news media organizations in the country and the law firm of former Ateneo School of Government dean Antonio Gabriel La Viña and former Bayan Muna representative Carlos Isagani Zarate forged an agreement on Monday, May 20, to provide legal aid to Cagayan de Oro-based journalists who are red-tagged, sued for libel, or harassed because of their work.

The collaboration between the Cagayan de Oro Press Club (COPC) and La Viña, Zarate, and Associates, a law firm specializing in public interest cases, was hailed as a first, at least in Mindanao.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed as the 73-year-old press club spearheaded the launch of the 42nd Press Freedom Week celebration in Cagayan de Oro. 

Electrical Device, Microphone, Accessories
CELEBRATION. Journalist Froilan Gallardo, president of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club, addresses community journalists at the start of the annual Press Freedom Week at the Press Freedom Monument in Cagayan de Oro on Monday, May 20. Franck Dick Rosete/Rappler

The annual celebration started on May 24, 1982, when the late senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., then Cagayan de Oro’s mayor, issued an executive order to observe Press Freedom Week in the city yearly. In his book, Martial Law in the Philippines: My Story, Pimentel wrote, “It was my way of encouraging the media in Cagayan de Oro to exercise the freedom of the press in the city while the martial law regime suppressed this freedom in other parts of the country.”

The COPC was organized in 1951 as an organization of community journalists from various Cagayan de Oro-based publications. Years later, it accepted broadcast journalists as members. Presently, it has a membership of more than 100 and owns two adjacent buildings in downtown Cagayan de Oro.

The MOU, signed by veteran journalist and COPC President Froilan Gallardo and Zarate, provides that the law firm will provide legal assistance to the city’s journalists, COPC members or not, once endorsed by the media organization.

The law firm also offered the city’s journalists, through the COPC, free legal consultations and the preparation of legal opinions.

The MOU added that the law firm’s primary responsibility is to represent journalists as legal counsel before the prosecutor’s office, lower courts, and administrative agencies, rendering its services pro bono as part of its social responsibility.

Appeals before the regional state prosecutor, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Court of Appeals (CA), or the Supreme Court, however, will be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

“The pro bono representation of [the La Viña-Zarate law firm] still applies, but it shall file any petition or pleading in relation to any appeal only after express instructions from the COPC or the concerned referred member,” a part of the MOU reads.

For its part, the COPC committed to the proactive “promotion and defense of the right to free expression and free press,” and to combat disinformation and fake news.

At the same time, the COPC and the Movement Against Disinformation (MAD), represented by lawyer Ernesto Neri, also forged an agreement where the latter agreed to collaborate and share resources with the media organization in fighting against disinformation.

Gallardo said he and COPC directors worked to collaborate with other groups because they understood the struggles experienced by community journalists who were either sued for libel or red-tagged, an act defined by the High Tribunal as a threat to people’s security.

Gallardo himself was red-tagged along with several other Cagayan de Oro-based journalists during the previous administration.

Sean Solugan, a media worker at the tabloid Benta Birada News, said the collaboration would be a big help to community journalists in Cagayan de Oro, especially those working for small news organizations which do not have lawyers.

In 2014, Solugan said the late former COPC president and lawyer Augusto Neri Jr. went out of his way to defend him in a libel case. The case, he said, was eventually dismissed.

Zarate said the law on libel has been weaponized to pressure the media, especially the critical ones, into silence.

The COPC is among the various organizations in the country that has long been calling for the removal of the criminal element in the country’s libel laws. Zarate, meanwhile, was among those who pushed for the decriminalization of libel when he served as Bayan Muna’s representative to the Lower House. –

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