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Philippines court further restricts coverage of Ampatuan trial

UPDATE: Journalists urge Supreme Court to reconsider allowing live broadcast of Ampatuan massacre trial (International Federation of Journalists, 7 December 2012)

(CMFR/IFEX) - November 14, 2012 - Although the Supreme Court said it had merely "modified" the guidelines on the live coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, its October 23, 2012 En Banc Resolution mandating "Guidelines for audio-visual recording and streaming of the video coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial" reversed the decision it had issued on June 14, 2011, which responded to a petition by media organizations and journalists.

Did the Court indeed merely modify its June 2011 ruling?

Earlier confusion on what exactly it had decided was due to the resolution's use of terms. In mandating closed circuit media coverage, which it unfortunately mis-labels as "recording and streaming" of the trial, the latter term seeming to imply the possibility of live media streaming, the resolution was interpreted in many reports as permission for the media to make use of the video as it was being generated for public dissemination - for live streaming via the Internet.

(A comparison of the June 14, 2011 and October 23, 2013 guidelines can be accessed here.)

The Resolution reiterates the June 14, 2011 mandate allowing audio-visual recording of the Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre cases solely for documentary purposes, in addition to allowing their transmittal to a viewing area outside the court, and specifying that the recording would be "for transmittal to specified closed circuit viewing areas" in Maguindanao, Koronadal City (South Cotabato), and General Santos City so that the relatives of both the accused and the victims may follow the proceedings.

But the resolution does not at all mention allowing the media to access the video footage for dissemination. There is no indication in the document of any intention to permit such access or use by the media.

The previous ruling of June 14, 2011 had clearly allowed media to use footage generated by a camera in the Ampatuan Massacre trial court, to be operated and controlled "by a duly designated official employee of the Supreme Court." Albeit with very restrictive conditions, conditions which were described as necessary to protect the rights of the accused, in this case, of Andal Ampatuan Jr., the ruling was regarded as a victory by the media petitioners. The more restrictive terms of the October 23, 2012 resolution emphatically puts the rights of the accused above press freedom and the public's right to know.

The June 14, 2011 ruling was never implemented because of the Andal Ampatuan Jr. motion for reconsideration and the partial motion for reconsideration filed by lawyer Harry Roque, with the former arguing that allowing live coverage would compromise his right to a fair trial, while the latter argued that the conditions allowing live coverage were restrictive.

The requirement for the media to cover each trial day without interruption and cuts was virtually impossible to meet, since it would have tied down programming for the six hours or more of each trial day. Television requires only a few minutes of video footage and sound bytes on the most significant developments during a trial day for credible coverage, with time left for the coverage of other events.

The 2011 injunction against commentary during coverage was equally problematic. It would have prevented contextualization and interpretation of what was happening in court, and made live coverage meaningless and merely repetitive of the court's monitors.

The June 14, 2011 Supreme Court decision was in that sense already restrictive of press freedom and the public's right to information. But as caring of the rights of the accused as the October 23, 2012 resolution is, its "modifications" make it even more so.

Without live coverage, the media community must find a way to report as accurately and as fully on this trial to let the public know that the Ampatuan Massacre was not just an attack on the media, but was also a blow on Philippine democracy. The traditional practice that bars live coverage of criminal trials notwithstanding, the obligation of journalism remains, no matter the obstacles and challenges media must overcome. That obligation is to provide the public the information it needs - in the case of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, towards achieving the ends of justice in order to end the culture of impunity.

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