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MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) dismissed a Rappler petition, which sought to challenge the ban on presidential coverages imposed on the news organization during the time of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
In a 32-page decision dated June 27, 2023, but was only made public on Thursday, February 1, the High Court moved to dismiss the petition due to mootness. Mootness means the court found the petition to have “lost its practical significance” because the concern has already been resolved.
The rest of the magistrates concurred in the ruling penned by Associate Justice Maria Filomena Singh, except for Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen and Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier, who both dissented. Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo was on official leave so he was not able to cast his vote.
On April 10, 2019, Rappler journalists led by Pia Ranada, then-Rappler’s Malacañang reporter, filed a petition for certiorari – legal remedy used to review grave abuse of discretion – and prohibition with the SC.
At least 40 other petitioners from the media joined the petition, which also asked for the issuance of a temporary restraining order to temporarily stop the ban imposed by the Duterte administration against Ranada and Rappler.
The Rappler petition was a test case because it argued that the coverage ban violated constitutional rights to free press, free speech, equal protection, and due process. The ban started on February 20, 2018, when a member of the Presidential Security Group barred Ranada from entering the Malacañang complex, where she had been covering the Duterte administration.
Later on, Malacañang and Duterte himself explained that the reasons for the ban include the revocation of Rappler’s license to operate, which also happened under Duterte’s time. Rappler has appealed the revocation, a case that’s pending before the Court of Appeals.
The coverage ban was among the forms of harassment that Duterte unleashed against Rappler and other independent media when he was president. Under Duterte, at least a dozen legal cases were filed against Rappler, its CEO Maria Ressa, board members, and staff.
Duterte’s term already expired
In its ruling, the High Court explained that mootness is the primary issue that needed to be addressed in the petition. The SC highlighted that Duterte’s term already ended on June 30, 2022 when he was succeeded by the sitting chief executive, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
“Given that the primary assertion of the petitioners is that the ban was the result of the various offices in the executive department acting to implement the verbal directives of President Duterte, and that the accreditation issue was merely a pretext for President Duterte’s personal dislike of the petitioners, it is clear that the expiration of his term as President has mooted this Petition,” the ruling said.
The SC also pointed out that its judgment would not have “any practical value.” This was because Duterte was already out of office, and Rappler already has access to presidential events under Marcos. The High Court noted that Rappler already appeared in the list of Malacañang Press Corps (MPC) members, as of February 20, 2023.
There were also issues in the case “that would require a factual determination, and as such, prevent a characterization of the issues raised as purely questions of law.” They included the contrasting statements of Rappler and the respondents on MPC membership, extent of ban coverage, and the ban’s origin.
“Given the various interlocking and overlapping issues that the Court will have to resolve in order to rule on the substantive issues here, a good number of which would require findings of fact to wholly and satisfactorily address, the Court considers that the interests of the public will not be adequately served, and neither will the role of the Court as an institution be exercised properly by an attempt to rule on the substantive issues, particularly in a moot case where no actual relief will be afforded to the petitioners,” the SC explained.
In addition, the SC said it “recognized” the petitioners’ alarm, as well as their efforts to pursue the case. These things stemmed from their collective fear of Duterte’s statements, “which they perceive as attacks on journalists, the media, and on the press,” the High Court said.
“Indeed, it is plain to see why the petitioners and the petitioners-intervention find these statements so troubling, to say the least, as they come from no less than the President of the country, who is solemnly tasked with the duty to see that our nation’s laws are faithfully executed, and that the Constitution is at all times upheld,” the SC added.
Leonen, Javier dissent
Senior magistrate Leonen voted to grant Rappler’s petition, but was outvoted. Only Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier sided with him.
In his dissenting opinion, Leonen explained that even though Duterte’s ended term rendered the petition moot, a ruling was still needed to emphasize doctrines on free press and to avoid a repeat of the ban in the future.
Leonen said the ban on media coverage raised questions about the exercise of a free press in the country. Government’s interference is always considered as suspect, and the state must prove the validity of its regulation, he added.
The senior associate justice cited Article III, Section 4 of the Constitution, along with relevant jurisprudence. Leonen added that of the types of speeches, journalists’ work has the highest degree of protection because it is considered a form of political speech.
“There is a greater degree of protection to political speech compared to other types of speech, such as commercial speech, because they are intended and received as a contribution to public deliberation about some issue, fostering informed and civic-minded deliberation,” the senior magistrate explained.
Leonen said that governmental acts that constitute prior restraint are presumed invalid and unconstitutional. He disagreed with the respondents’ position that prohibition from covering presidential events was not prior restraint, and documentary requirements for accreditation do not restrict publication of articles.
Leonen said accreditation of the press constitutes prior restraint, adding that “it is a governmental regulation that burdens and touches upon the work of the free press in their production and publication of news.”
“Covering government events and information gathering are indispensable for the press to deliver the news. When the government restricts these activities, it hampers the work of the press and harms and stifles the function of the media in a democracy,” he added. – Rappler.com