A crime to cover

MANILA, Philippines – The decision of Makati Regional Trial Court Judge Reynaldo Laigo to dismiss the class suit filed by journalists and media organizations against the Philippine National Police for unlawfully arresting journalists during the Peninsula Manila incident last November is a terrible mistake. It misreads the context of the journalists’ detention, it rewards the police for unbecoming conduct. Not least, it adds to the erosion that has steadily undermined press freedom in the Age of Gloria.

Judge Laigo said he found that the charges brought against the PNP “do not constitute sufficient cause of action for damages against the defendants that warrants further prosecution of the instant case.”

We beg to disagree, not least because the ruling does not accord with the reality that transpired on the night of Nov. 29. As we wrote in this space a couple of days after the Trillanes takeover telenovela: “very few would disagree that the way the police handled—or more accurately, manhandled—the members of the media who were covering the event bordered on ruthlessness.”

That, in fact, was the point: to make an example of the media. The use of plastic tie wraps, the herding of news personnel to the buses, the gun-pointing and stick-beating, above all the inexplicable insistence on identifying media workers inside a police camp, instead of on the scene (a scene already secured by thousands of policemen)—all this was meant to humiliate those who had the temerity to cover the country’s latest spasm of military adventurism.

Laigo’s contention that the complainants were fortunate the police did not file counter-charges against them is not only misplaced; it is unjust. The filing of counter-charges (at one time seriously contemplated by the Arroyo administration) would have added abuse of the processes of the administration of justice to the tactics of harassment.

The judge added: “the right of the plaintiffs as members of the press as guaranteed under the Constitution was not violated and trampled upon by the respective acts of the defendants complained of.”

Again, we strongly disagree. As a review of the reporting from the hotel all the way to Camp Bicutan will readily show, PNP officials were remarkably inconsistent about the reason for the journalists’ detention. Some even denied the fact, calling the unusual action mere “processing.” (By such rationalizing misuse of bureaucratic language are crimes by officials committed and covered up.) Other officials hinted darkly at possible “obstruction of justice”—an incredible accusation rendered even more unbelievable by the casting of such a wide net. (At one time, the PNP chief and other police officers pointed meaningfully in the direction of certain journalists, alleging involvement in the escape of a Magdalo mutineer, but they have failed to produce evidence to persuade even fellow officers.)

We mustn’t also forget that the Arroyo administration imposed a curfew that night for the first time since martial-law days. If it wasn’t clear then, it is transparent now: The curfew was an attempt to gauge public sentiment regarding the administration’s use of harsher measures. The “processing” of the journalists who covered the Pen incident was part of that plan.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the details of Laigo’s decision remain a mystery to most of the complainants. As one of them, columnist and blogger Ellen Tordesillas, pointed out yesterday, they have not yet received a copy of the June 20 decision. Neither have their lawyers. If Inquirer.net reporter Thea Alberto had not broken the story last week, would we even be talking about this ruling now? Considering the original circumstances behind the filing of the complaint, and in fact alleged in it, the curious circumstances behind the release of the decision make it immediately suspect.

Full of confidence in the quality of the judiciary, this newspaper wrote last year: “Let’s see if [the PNP chief] can find a friendly judge who will declare it a crime to cover … breaking news.” Unfortunately, Laigo has done just that. The effect of his decision, which must immediately be appealed, is to make it a crime to cover the news—merely on the police’s say-so.
Editorial: Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 30, 2008

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