A Class Suit for Press Freedom

Police and Justice Department officials face a P10 million class suit filed by over a hundred journalists and three media organizations for the illegal arrest of their colleagues after the Manila Pen siege by rebel soldiers November last year and the succeeding threats thereof.

By Dabet Castañeda
Vol VIII. No. 1, February 3-9, 2008

For illegally arresting journalists during the Manila Peninsula standoff November last year, and for continuously issuing threats against the media, police, military and Justice Department officials face a P10 million class suit filed Jan. 28 at the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Makati City.

“We will make it very expensive for them should they persist in violating the rights of others,” said Harry Roque, lead counsel for the petitioners. Roque said the claim for damages is based on Article 32 of the New Civil Code, which states that, “any person who has infringed on another person’s constitutional rights shall be liable to pay damages.”

Ellen Tordesillas, columnist of the broadsheet Malaya and one of those illegally arrested after the Manila Pen siege on Nov. 29, 2007, said she was confident that they will win the case against the government, adding that the P10 million, which would be awarded to them, would be used for assisting journalists who come under fire for practicing their profession.

According to Roque, this is only the third case in the country filed pursuant to Article 32 of the New Civil Code.

The first case was Aberca v. Ver (GR No. L-69866). The case Aberca vs. Ver was a civil suit for compensatory, moral, and exemplary damages filed in 1983 by 20 political detainees, including Rogelio Aberca, against then Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Fabian Ver and 11 other military and police officials. The case stemmed from the accusations of the political detainees that their arrest was illegal and that they were tortured to exact incriminating information. The case was dismissed by Judge Willelmo Fortun of the Regional Trial Court citing that the writ of habeas corpus was suspended and that the defendants were immune from liability for acts done in performance of their official duties. But the Supreme Court, in a decision dated April 15, 1988, granted the petition for certiorari filed by the detainees March 15, 1985, and directed the lower court to continue with the proceedings. The High Court cited Article 32 of the New Civil Code in saying that public officials and employees as well as private individuals cannot escape responsibility for violating the Constitutional rights and liberties of another even if it was done in performance of their official duties.

Two suits

Aside from the case filed at the Makati RTC, 81 other journalists filed another class suit at the Supreme Court on the same day. Both cases were for the issuance of writs of prohibition and injunction and for a Temporary Retraining Order (TRO) against the implementation of an undated advisory issued by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, which “reminded” chief executive officers of media networks, media companies, press groups and entities that they may incur criminal liabilities while covering military and police operations and emergencies.

The cases also seek to prevent government officials, military and police authorities from publicly accusing journalists as “coddlers” or protectors of rebels or conspiring with rebels. This stemmed from the revelations of unnamed police officials that Dana Batnag of Jiji Press was being tagged as the “lady reporter” who allegedly aided the escape of military rebel Capt. Nicanor Faeldon from the Manila Peninsula during the November 29, 2007 standoff.

The courts were also asked to stop state agents from “imposing any form of prior restraint/s on the press, whether direct of indirect, or in the form of thinly veiled threats of government sanctions, reminders of criminal liability and similar practices.”

Escalation of threats

Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, lead counsel of the case filed by the ABS-CBN network, said that they have gone to the High Court because the threats to media were escalating. First, he said, the media was threatened with criminal liability for covering the Manila Pen siege. After which, he said, the Department of Justice (DoJ) warned media entities that their franchise may be stricken off if they continue to cover such events. Lately, he said, the government threatened to file a case of rebellion against a “lady reporter’’ who the policed accused of helping Capt. Faeldon escape.

“Charges should be filed but threats should never be made,” Diokno added.

Matter of public concern

Diokno however said the case filed at the SC is not just about the threats on the media. “The focus here is the right of the people to receive information on matters of public concern,” he said.

The manner in which the police respond to actions of military rebels involves law enforcement and human rights, Diokno said, and therefore a matter of public concern.

The FLAG lawyer also said that in the end, it is the public who would suffer from restrictions being imposed on the media because “the information that the public needs to know to make decisions is simply not there.”

“Arrogant warnings of the police are plain censorship,” Diokno further said. (Bulatlat.com)

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