By JONAS ALPASAN
MANILA – It has been nearly a month since Bulatlat, the longest running online news in the Philippines, learned that it was blocked by the Philippine government along with 26 other websites for its alleged terror links.
But yesterday, July 13, in a two-hour hearing, the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 306 denied Bulatlat’s petition for the issuance of a temporary restraining order, saying that “there is clearly no suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech” as the court was able to access the website.
But for Bulatlat’s managing editor Ronalyn Olea, “the restriction is an urgent matter as it denies a significant number of our subscribers access to our content. The unjust labeling of Bulatlat as affiliated to alleged terrorist groups also puts our safety at risk.”
Basis of Bulatlat’s complaints
In the complaint filed last July 8, Alipato Media Center, which manages and publishes Bulatlat, said that the memorandum of the NTC is ultra vires or beyond its powers.
In media interviews, one of Bulatlat’s lawyers, Frank Lloyd Tiongson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, described the NTC order as whimsical as there is no basis for the blocking order.
Looking into the executive order that created the NTC, and later the 1995 law that designated it as principal administrator of public telecommunications, they argued that nothing expressed or implied clothes the government agency the power to block Bulatlat without securing a court order.
Bulatlat also said that the NTC violated their constitutional freedoms of the press, speech, and expression, adding that there is “no danger, real, imminent, clear and/or present danger that would pass the standard of strict scrutiny to justify the blocking” of the 27 websites listed in its order.
They added that the blocking order “constitutes censorship and prior restraint or subsequent punishment, as the case maybe, on the past, present, and future news as well as editorial content of Bulatlat.com.”
Bulatlat also argued that the NTC, by simply taking Esperon’s word for it, imputed the terror tagged on the owners of the websites “without competent, credible and admissible evidence which it has no power to do so to start with.”
By ordering the blocking, the alternative news site said the NTC deprived them of their property without due process of law.
“As a matter of fact, as multi-awarded Plaintiff was established in 2001 by veteran journalists and human rights defenders thus being the longest-running online media outfit in the Philippines, the damage and prejudice to its reputation is so grave and severe as to be capable of pecuniary estimation.”
In its complaint, Bulatlat asked for a symbolic P1 damage.
Why not include the ATC?
Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who was a no-show at the Quezon City court, was represented by his lawyer, who claimed that the Anti-Terrorism Council should be impleaded in the complaint filed by Bulatlat. This despite an earlier statement of a former official of the terror council, saying they have no hand in it.
While Esperon did not cite the controversial Anti-Terror Law in his request letter to the NTC, he instead cited three resolutions of the terror council as basis for the blocking. There was no mention of proof of the supposed links.
In the complaint filed by Bulatlat, they said that citing that “it bears noting that Plaintiff is not a designated terrorist entity, not to mention that the blocking of the website is not sanctioned by the ATA as one of the consequences of being designated as a terrorist.”
Basis of denying TRO
Quezon City RTC Branch 306 Judge Rose Bolante-Prado, in her two-page decision denying the issuance of a TRO, said the reduced number of Bulatlat’s readers and the inconvenience, if any, it caused, is “of no moment” and “irrelevant.”
“What is clear is that bulatlat.com, as revealed today, can still publish online and is inaccessible to its audience,” the judge said.
However, an informal survey of Bulatlat showed that most of its subscribers are still not able to view the (dot)com domain of the alternative news agency. But why is the (dot)com domain of Bulatlat accessible to some and not to others?
In a television interview, Bulatlat associate editor and journalism professor Danilo Arao explained that there may be an uneven implementation of the NTC order. He added that there are also ways to bypass the DNS blocking, including the changing the DNS setting to public, the use of virtual private network or certain browsers that can bypass the blocking on their own.
“The fundamental question here is that should that order be imposed on internet service providers in the first place. That, for us, is the fundamental issue,” Arao said.
Minerva Lopez of the NUPL, who is also among the lawyers of Bulatlat, said that despite the denial of the TRO, “the merits of the case are yet to be decided upon by the court.”
“Despite attempts by the defendants to have the case dismissed on procedural matters in today’s hearing, the court ordered the filing of the parties’ respective Memoranda and set the case for the application of preliminary injunction on August 2,” Lopez said in her Facebook post.
She explained that the denied TRO is only valid for 20 days while a preliminary injunction is a stay valid for as long as there is a pending case before the court.
Apart from the impending case, Olea stressed the importance of getting public support on the issue.
Bulatlat also uses the hashtag #LetThePeopleKnow to highlight how this attack also infringes on the people’s right to information.