Two editorials on Laigo’s dismissal of media class suit
On Friday evening, as we in the media prepared the news-record of the nation’s last workday and looked forward to easing ourselves into the weekend, a coup was sprung on us: a court ruling going against us and kept secret since its promulgation seven days earlier was released that evening — released not by the court itself but by the chief of the metropolitan police, Gen. Geary Barias, himself a beneficiary of the ruling, being one of the defendants.
Evidently Barias had been favored with a first, and perhaps only, copy of the ruling and the opportunity to do what he could with it; we the complainants and our lawyers had been ourselves kept in the dark. Thus, Barias made his revelation at his chosen moment and to his chosen audience, an audience of one, as it happened — a newspaper reporter who, quickly recognizing the critical implications of the ruling on her very profession, sounded the alarm.
But the trick, as familiar as it is, especially to the police, always works. It’s not unlike getting a warrant of arrest just before court business closes for the weekend so that any prompt legal counteraction may be precluded, which in itself constitutes justice delayed at the first instance.
If Barias and the judge, Reynaldo M. Laigo, of the Makati Regional Trial Court, had not been in it together, it would be a huge surprise. The ruling itself was a surprise since the case had not yet been tried on its merits.
At any rate, all this is largely technicality, only the surface of the abomination. The abomination proper is the ruling itself, whose mere five pages are no indication at all of leanness or any other virtue in expression, but, rather, a betrayal of poverty of any sense of democratic principles.
The first four pages are little more than a recitation of arguments presented to make a case for or against the legality of the arrest, cuffing, and detention of journalists who ignored Barias’s order for them get out of the Peninsula hotel on November 29, 2007, as his men prepared to mount an assault against allegedly mutinous soldiers holding out there.
The ruling itself is rendered in two paragraphs and justified sweepingly under the article in the Revised Penal Code penalizing “resistance and disobedience to a person in authority.” No attempt whatever has been made to validate it against superior legal principles, such as laid down in the constitution, in particular freedom of the press. It declares that Barias’s order “was but lawful and appeared to have been disobeyed by plaintiffs” — the journalists, that is — and that in fact “they were so lucky” to not have been indicted.
It goes on to justify the way the police treated the journalists as “being in accord with police procedure.”
Effectively, the ruling puts journalists under the police, nay, at their mercy. It signals to the police that next time any journalist disobeys them they can arrest him, cuff him, haul him to jail, and detain him. It is frightening to imagine what, with such police and judicial mindset, can happen to practitioners in the provinces, where they are particularly vulnerable, as evidenced by the highest number of disappearances and killings among their ranks.
Indeed, Judge Laigo’s ruling sends the biggest chill yet across the media profession, because it kills a journalist’s last chance at keeping his freedom — freedom that he exercises not for himself, by the way, but, as constitutional watchdog on the powers that be, for all of society.
A time to cover
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.