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Court dismisses petition against media censorship by executive branch officials; petitioners to appeal

(CMFR/IFEX) - Thirty seven journalists, the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines, and eight media organizations will appeal a court decision dismissing their petition seeking to prohibit executive branch officials from censoring the media.

The petition was filed on 8 March 2006 following President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's Presidential Proclamation (PP) 1017 on 24 February 2006 which resulted in a police raid on a newspaper office, and threats against critical media.

In a 17-page decision penned by Associate Justice Bienvenido Reyes, the Court of Appeals' 12th Division on 30 May 2007 dismissed the petition calling for the condemnation of PP 1017 on grounds of "procedural deficiencies", stating that the appeals court is not the proper venue for the petition, which he said should have been filed before the Regional Trial Court.

But the court said that the actions of the government toward the media following PP 1017 "can be construed as a censure to the exercise of the universal rights of free speech".

"It bears to stress that the clear intention of the law is that no prior restraint can be imposed on the exercise of free speech and of expression, and that the freedom to communicate one's views and discuss any matter of public concern should remain to be so without fear or punishment or liability unless there be a clear and present danger of a substantive evil that the State has a right to prevent," said Judge Reyes.

Following the dismissal, the petitioners will file a Motion for Review (MR) before the Court of Appeals. If the MR is denied, the petitioners will file the case before the Supreme Court.

"We are alarmed and disturbed that the court did not face the issue squarely and (did not) judge it on its merits," lawyer Jose Diokno, member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), said. FLAG's Diokno and Theodore Te are the lawyers of the journalists in the case.

The media organizations in the petition are ABS-CBN TV News and Public Affairs, the Center for Community Journalism and Development, CMFR, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Newsbreak, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Press Institute and Probe Productions. The University of the Philippine College of Mass Communications is also among the petitioners.

Diokno also wondered what took the court such a long time to just decide that it had no jurisdiction on the case. "If they're just going to say that they have no jurisdiction, why couldn't they have said it earlier?" he asked.

Diokno also said that while it has been over a year since the case was filed, the petition remains relevant. "They can say that this is already moot and academic, but these things can happen again (so there is a lingering threat)," he said.

The petitioners named Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) as respondents in the case.

Arroyo declared a state of national emergency through PP 1017, claiming that there was a conspiracy to topple her government. Philippine security forces then launched a series of attacks on the media, which included a police raid on the opposition paper "The Daily Tribune", and the issuances by the National Telecommunications Commission of media guidelines that prohibited broadcast media from airing news and commentaries that tend to incite the public to treason, rebellion or sedition, or "constitute rebellious/terrorist propaganda, comments, information, interviews, and other similar or related materials".

Troops were also posted outside the compounds of ABS-CBN and GMA, the country's two biggest television and radio networks. Department of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez also announced that the government was monitoring the media for rebellious reportage or commentaries.

Arroyo lifted PP 1017 on 3 March 2006, but police and military threats against the media continued.

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