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Judge dismisses case filed by media organisations protesting treatment of journalists during Peninsula Hotel incident

(CMFR/IFEX) - On 20 June 2008, a Makati Regional Trial Court judge dismissed a class suit filed by journalists and media organizations against government officials whose actions resulted in the arrest of dozens of journalists covering a press conference by rebel soldiers on 29 November 2007.

The P10 million (approx. US$245,600) suit was filed in response to the arrests and other forms of government intimidation that followed the arrests. CMFR is a co-petitioner in the case.

In a five-page decision, Judge Reynaldo Laigo of Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 56 claimed that the arrest of the journalists was "justified" and in accordance "with police procedure."

Laigo also criticized the conduct of the journalists present at the Peninsula Hotel incident, which included some of the plaintiffs, when they refused to follow the orders of officer Geary Barias, director of the National Capital Region Police Office, to vacate the area.

"Under the given dangerous situation, that order by defendant . . . Barias was lawful and appeared to have been disobeyed by all those, including some of the plaintiffs, when they intentionally refused to leave the hotel premises," the judge stated.

"(An) appropriate criminal charge under Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code, which is applicable to all, including the media personalities, could have been initiated against them but they were so lucky as none had been initiated against them," Laigo added.

Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code pertains to penalties regarding the "resistance and disobedience to a person in authority or the agents of such person."

Laigo said the statements issued by government officials following the Peninsula Hotel incident, defending the arrests and warning journalists that the same thing could happen in the future should they refuse to follow police orders, have not violated press freedom.

"(The) pronouncements made by other defendants and that advisory of defendant Secretary Gonzale(z) following that Manila Peninsula Hotel standoff, the same have not and will not in any way curtail, much less avert, plaintiffs from exercising freely their rights as such members of the press - covering or obtaining information on future events similar to what transpired at the Manila Peninsula Hotel," the judge said.

The decision was issued 20 June, but as of 30 June the plaintiffs and their lawyer had yet to receive a formal copy of it. The decision was only made known when a reporter for a daily newspaper obtained a copy from the office of Barias, who is also a respondent in the complaint.

"The ruling was dated 20 June 2008 but released on 27 June, a Friday, raising the perfectly reasonable suspicion of an attempt to catch the complainants flatfooted and suppress any adverse prompt reaction - in fact, the lawyers of the complainants were not provided with a copy of the ruling. The strategy is no different from getting an arrest warrant issued at the start of the weekend, when the courts close business. It smacks of some conspiracy," Vergel Santos, editorial board chair of the Business World and CMFR board member, said.

Harry Roque, the plaintiffs' counsel, said that the decision "may yet be the biggest blow to our cherished civil liberties to date."

"(W)e maintain that restricting the movement of the press in such a threatening manner, taking into account the totality of the official acts of the police and the DOJ [Department of Justice], constitutes an invisible threat of state retaliation by police and prosecutorial forces should the press venture into areas that the police declare as a crime scene," Roque said.

Roque noted that the complainants will appeal the case.

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