SEAPA denounces dismissal of Filipino journalists’ suit vs. police, government

1 July 2008
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups in Southeast Asia, joins the Philippine media community in denouncing a dangerous court decision that could have a chilling effect on how journalists will henceforth cover unfolding crises or emergencies.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups in Southeast Asia, joins the Philippine media community in denouncing a dangerous court decision that could have a chilling effect on how journalists will henceforth cover unfolding crises or emergencies.

On 20 June 2008, a lower court in Manila dismissed a class suit brought by journalists against the national police.

The suit stemmed from the evening of 29 November 2008, when the journalists were rounded up, arrested, and imputed with having obstructed justice, after they refused to abandon the scene of an unfolding story in Manila’s financial district: an ultimately failed rebellion led by a disgruntled senator and former military officer. After the news events of that day, the journalists were handcuffed and hauled off on military buses for interrogation in police offices. Imputed with having “obstructed justice”, and worse, being complicit in the failed rebellion, the Filipino media practitioners filed a class suit against the police for unlawful arrest, while warning that the police’s conduct (eventually rationalized and backed up by government memoranda) would have a chilling effect on press freedom in the country.

Human rights lawyer Harry Roque notes that the police after the crisis in November “treated the journalists as suspects in a crime, taking them into custody but without informing them what offense or crime they have committed and without providing them with a counsel of their own choice.” Eventually, he added, “the Secretary of Justice and other members of the President’s cabinet, approved of the abusive, arbitrary and repressive manner in which policemen treated the journalists who were covering the Manila Peninsula standoff and threatened to unleash the same treatment against journalists in future news events of similar nature.”

Indeed, on 11 January 2008, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez issued an advisory – delivered in all-capital letters addressed to the chief executive officers of media networks and press organizations. The advisory warned that the journalists and media companies “may incur criminal liabilities…if (they) disobey lawful orders from duly authorized government officers and personnel during emergencies…”

Believing that leaving the police and government stance unchallenged would threaten press freedom, the Filipino journalists filed a class suit challenging the same.

The dismissal of that suit on 20 June 2008, and the executive rationale behind the police’s arrest of the covering journalists to start with, immediately brings uncertainty and danger to media practitioners in future urgencies – uncertainty and danger not from the inherent risks of emergencies, but from the mandate that police and the government have granted themselves (now with court backing) to dictate what would be out of bounds for news coverage.

As the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a founding member of SEAPA, has stressed: “Deciding whether to stay and to continue to cover a developing story, or to withdraw from the scene is the editorial prerogative of a constitutionally protected press. No regime has the right to dictate that a decision to stay and cover is wrong and can be penalized.  These issues, all vital to the capacity of the press to do its mandated duty of providing the public the information it needs, are among those that the class suit sought to resolve in favor of press freedom.”

SEAPA encourages and supports the Filipino press community in their stated intention to immediately appeal this decision before the higher courts. A truly free press works for the people’s right to information, and must therefore be protected in its mandate to cover events of public interest.  Moreover, members of the press must, as their original suit insisted, be free from harassment and threats from government agents that could have a chilling effect on their work as journalists.

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