NUJP condemns harassment of journalists in Olongapo

Statement
June 2, 2008


On two separate instances, the constitutionally guaranteed rights of journalists were grossly violated by members of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Law Enforcement Department and an officer of the Olongapo regional trial court branch 72.

On May 27, while following up on reports that a large haul of shabu, or high grade methamphetamine hydrochloride, was confiscated by the SBMA Law Enforcement Department and stored in their offices for safekeeping before being turned over to the PASG, Jeff Tombado, an ABS-CBN stringer, was savagely manhandled and treated like a criminal by no less than the head of the SBMA LED, Col. Virgilio Tolentino, and a few other members of his unit.

At about 4 p.m. of that day, Tombado was within the vicinity of the LED Headquarters inside the Subic Bay Freeport Zone having been sent there by the ABS-CBN news desk to take video footage of the façade of the building where the haul of shabu was reportedly kept. It was here where Col. Tolentino and his men accosted him and demanded that he immediately stop taking footage.

When Tombado refused to stop, one of Tolentino’s men, who was in civilian clothes at the time of the incident, demanded that he produce an ID card to verify his identity and media affiliation. Tombado explained to the LED officer that he could not show his ID because he has still not been issued one by ABS-CBN because he had only recently started working as a stringer.

The heated exchange went on for several minutes and Tolentino and his men approached them. Tombado repeatedly told the officers to verify his identity and affiliation by calling ABS-CBN, but they refused. Tolentino then pounced on Tombado, yanking the video camera away from him, while other LED officers with Tolentino twisted Tombado’s arms behind his back and ganged up on him. One of the LED officers even pulled out a gun.

Tolentino told Tombado, “Hindi mo ba alam, ako ang hari dito (Don’t you know, I am the king here)?” Tombado’s arm, which had only began healing after he had accidentally sprained it, was twisted hard behind his back by several LED officers while Tolentino ranted about his “authority.”

“Kala mo kung sino ka. Hindi ikaw ang authority dito. Ako lang ang authority dito (You think you are someone. You are not the authority here. I am the only authority here).”

Tombado again identified himself and asked them to verify his identity by calling the ABS-CBN news desk that sent him there. Again, Tolentino refused.

Tombado then asked Tolentino and his men, while they continued to manhandle him, what exactly was his offense for them to treat him that way. Tolentino refused to give any reason for his and his men’s actions. When finally Tombado was lucky enough to find an old press ID from his previous job and showed it to Tolentino, the latter was finally forced to let him go.

In another incident, Robert Gonzaga, a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, also met with the same derision from a government officer when Sheriff Leandro  Madarang of Olongapo City Regional Trial Court branch 72 demanded his ID while he was doing his job as a reporter.

Gonzaga and Tombado went last month to a building owned by a certain Cecilia Pabunan which was then being confiscated by a court in Olongapo on the orders of Judge Richard A. Paderaza, of RTC branch 72.

Gonzaga had been shown documents by Pabunan revealing that the issue had already reached the Court of Appeals and was told by Pabunan’s lawyer that ” what the sheriff is doing is illegal. Ask any lawyer, and that’s what he’ll tell you. ”

Endeavoring to hear the official version of the story, Gonzaga approached Sheriff Madriaga, who was facilitating the government’s seizure of Pabunan’s property, and asked on what grounds and on whose authority the building was being seized.

At the time, Pabunan was already wailing hysterically as several men hauled her furniture out of the building, where it was heaped on top of all her other possessions, exposed to the elements.

At first, Sheriff Madarang responded positively and even volunteered to go and get a copy of the writ of execution to show that Paderaza ordered the confiscation.

But when he returned, Madarang insistently asked for Gonzaga’s name and media affiliation, which the reporter had already given Madarang by way of introduction before he asked the sheriff his questions.

When Gonzaga explained that he did not have an ID because he was newly-hired by the Inquirer, Sheriff Madarang turned his back on Gonzaga.

Gonzaga then offered his celfone to Madarang so he could call the Inquirer Central Luzon desk to verify his identity, but Madarang waved away the offer and refused to engage the reporter any longer.

While not as severe as what happened to Tombado in the hands of Tolentino, Sheriff Madarang’s actions toward Gonzaga is emblematic of the attitude of some government officials towards media practitioners.

The NUJP suggests that instead of harassing journalists who are only doing their job, the energies of these arrogant officials are better spent hounding real criminals, not those who are merely tasked to report the truth.

The NUJP strongly condemns the conduct of these two government officers, from the judiciary and executive respectively, especially in the case of Jeff Tombado. Tolentino and his officers had every opportunity to verify his identity, but they refused and instead acted like a pack of rabid gangsters rather than law enforcement agents.

Both journalists happen to be newly-hired by their respective outlets, ABS-CBN in the case of Tombado and the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the case of Gonzaga. There is a short probationary period that is customary in the industry before media practitioners are issued an official ID. This is why they were unable to show proof of their media affiliations.

Nevertheless, this does not explain – or can this even begin to mitigate – the actions of Tolentino and Madarang. Their actions reek of arrogance and abundant disregard for law, decency, and the observance of consideration and respect between ordinary human beings.

Being instruments of government, they should be more aware than others about the role of media in the community. Both Sheriff Madarang and Col. Tolentino were both given ample opportunity to verify the identities and affiliations of the two, but they refused to do so and did not recognize the constitutionally protected rights of journalists to report the news.

They should realize that the same constitution from which their offices derive their powers is also the same document that protects the rights of journalists to monitor people like Tolentino and Madarang who may be using their authority to aggrandize themselves and inflict harm on others who they should be serving.

We also call the attention of these two officers’ superiors to their despicable actions and demand that they be investigated and the appropriate sanctions slapped on them. Better yet, that they be educated not only in the basic principles of respect for freedom of the press and the people’s right to know but, just as important, why those in government service are called civil servants, not masters. ###

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