Is it right for Malacanan to bar Pia Ranada from covering Philippine president Rodrigo Roa Duterte?

After banning the entry of Pia Ranada in Malacanan, Ranada’s media outfit Rappler is mulling on filing a complaint against what they call an affront to press freedom committed by the Presidential Communications team as well as the Presidential Security Group (PSG). The complaint is expected to reach the table of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

Ranada reportedly incurred the ire of the President himself for reportedly publishing “fake news”, according to Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. Roque disputes numerous online allegations saying that the source himself, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, had lost all his confidence with Ranada after reading news which, again, according to Roque, was angled differently.

US-Based Human Rights Watch (HRW) immediately condemned Malacanang’s action describing it as a threat to press freedom. But was it, really, a violation of press freedom?

Let’s analyze.

The simplest definition of press freedom is the act of publishing news or opinions about government action without being punished for doing so. The legal definition of “freedom of the press” in the United States begins with the forty-five words of the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted 15 December 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

We adopted such provisions in our 1987 Constitution, to wit:

SECTION 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. This is in our bill of Rights, Article 3.

There is another one:

SECTION 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law, again this comes from Article 3 of the 1987 Constitution.

These legal provisions are clear–government has not right to pass a law “abridging the freedom of speech, of expression or of the press” and ” the right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized.”

Now, are these rights inalienable? Yes they are. But are there limitations to such rights? Yes, there are limitations.

Government exercises regulatory power. Regulatory power is there to check for excesses by private individuals or firms. One concern is the possibility of foreign entities owning public utilities, such as media entities.

Utilities are important because they provide the realization of the basic and fundamental needs of the citizenry. Aside from basic essentials mostly physiological, one of the basic needs is communication. Our Constitution expressly prohibits foreign ownership of media organizations. It limits foreign ownership to 40%

There are insinuations that Rappler is owned by foreigners. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), tasked by government to ensure that firms registered publicly follow constitutional prohibitions, declared Rappler in violation of its registration. Rappler has appealed its decision before the Court of Appeals.

The question is–which is more ascendant–the Constitutional provision expressly guaranteeing the right of peoples to information and communication? Or the regulatory prohibition expressed by the Constitution insofar as ownership is concerned?

Both have differing weights, and since the right to free speech is more of a basic and natural right compared with the other provision which restricts, I think that it is best for the Court to allow Rappler to operate or express its right while the case pends before the appeals court. This is the most appropriate and the most prudent thing to do.

Therefore, was Malacanan correct in barring Ranada from covering President Duterte? No. Why limit Ranada’s access to the President? Barring any declaration that Ranada is a security threat, I find no other reason to bar Ranada from fully enjoying her right to cover Duterte and express her report using the Rappler platform. Rights are to be fully expressed and not restricted by government. Government can only do such a thing if it concerns national security or public welfare.

Is it harmful for the public to read and know about the inanities of Duterte? No. Is it a matter of national security that Ranada reports what she sees and hears from the powers in the palace? No. It would only be a matter of national security if Ranada shares totally confidential information and places Malacanan at a terrible bind. Without such instances, I disagree barring such a sweet young thing as Ranada.




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