SC urged to reconsider decision re live media coverage of Ampatuan Massacre trial

DAVAO CITY  (MindaNews/12 Nov) – “A huge step backwards that further promotes and breeds the culture of impunity in the Philippines,”  Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luz Ilagan said of the Supreme Court’s decision granting the motion for reconsideration filed by  Andal Ampatuan Jr., principal suspect in the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 persons, to disallow live media coverage of the hearings.

In a resolution dated October 23, 2012 but released only on Monday, the court said it “partially” granted  Ampatuan Jr’s motion for reconsideration of the June 14, 2011 resolution of the court allowing live media coverage, by “now disallowing the live media broadcast” of the Ampatuan Massacre trial “but is still allowing the filming of the proceedings for the real-time transmission to specified viewing areas, and documentation.”

The court on June 14, 2011 partially granted the petitions for live broadcast by television and radio of the hearings “subject to specific guidelines.”

But in its October 23, 2012 resolution, the Court said that while it “recognizes the freedom of the press and the right to public information, which, by the way, are rights that belong to non-direct parties to the case, the rights of the direct parties should not be forgotten. In a clash among these competing interests and in terms of the values the Constitution recognizes, jurisprudence makes it clear that the balance should always be weighed in favor of the accused.”

The constitutional rights to due process of law, to be presumed innocent until

the contrary is proved, “and to an impartial and public trial and the requirement of the

highest quantum of proof to justify deprivation of his liberty (or even of his life)

provide more than ample justification to take a second look at the view that a camera that

broadcasts the proceedings live on television has no place in a criminal trial because of its prejudicial effects on the rights of accused individuals,” it said.

Taking the place of live coverage, the SC said it would set up a viewing room with closed circuit camera footage outside the makeshift courtroom in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City. Viewing rooms would also be set up in courts in the cities of Koronadal and General Santos City, and in Maguindanao province, where most of the victims’ families live.

Ilagan said the case is so important not just for the media  — 32 of the 58 victims were from the media – but for everyone. “The absence of live media coverage in a case like the Maguindanao Massacre allows room for various maneuvers that could result to further delays. The Sereno-led Supreme Court should reconsider its decision,” she said.

Carlos Isagani Zarate of the Union of Peoples Lawyers Movement,  said it is “regrettable” that the Supreme Court “sacrificed the primordial consideration of the people’s right to know over the supposed private rights of the accused.”

“Live coverage of the trial will in fact ensure that this brutal, heinous, inhuman crime that is emblematic of the state of impunity still sweeping our country will not be forgotten and justice, however slowy it grinds, will be rendered,” Zarate said.

In  a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) quoted Mary Grace Morales, widow of massacre victim Rossel Morales, as saying, “if an accused has the right to conceal their atrocities, how about our rights?”

Nenen Momay-Castillo, daughter of one of  the media victims, said she does not want to deprive anyone of his right but “paano ang karapatan naming malaman at marinig ang katotohanan? Ang karapatan namin na mapasakamay ang inaasam na hustisya para sa mga mahal namin sa buhay?” (what about our right to know and listen to the truth, our right to justice for our loved ones?”

“Mabilisang paglilitis at tamang hatol ang ang aming kailangan. Kung hindi nyo kayang ibigay ang LIVE COVERAGE, dahil yon na ang disisyon ng Korte Suprema, bilisan ang paglilitis at hatulan na ang may sala” (Speedy trial and a fair decision is what we need. If you cannot give us live coverage because that is the Supreme Court’s decision,  then let’s have speedy trial so we can have the verdict), she said.

Prima Quinsayas, one of the private prosecutors for some of the massacre victims, said: “while I understand the misgivings of the Supreme Court (especially given the propensity of media to turn things into a circus), I also think it could have been an opportunity for the High Court to lay down the ground rules on live coverage of the Ampatuan massacre trial (or any trial, generally speaking). It could have been a chance to satisfy the people’s right to know, and at the same time protect the integrity of judicial proceedings.”

In Surigao City, videographer Rax Dumadag, favors the Supreme Court’s reversal of the June 2011 resoltuon. “Video is very powerful. It can make or break a case. I am in favor of the reversal. We don’t need to add more violence. TV Patrol is more than enough,” he said.

Antonio A. Villareal, a columnist and retired government official from the same city said “a high profile case like that should have maximum exposure.”

“The Constitutional right of the accused of innocence unless proven otherwise is not jeopardized here. It is still the judge who makes the decision,” he said.

Glenda Bayon-Carlota, freelance travel writer from Surigao City, said “If they are not hiding anything, why do they fear being seen and heard?  Although it is partial granting as they term it, it is not fair. Let the people know. (The SC’s) granting the motion is not the voice of the Filipino people.”

Harry Roque, lawyer for 17 of the media victims said the decision is a “big blow to judicial transparency and right to information given that the massacre is both multiple murder and affront on press freedom.”

Amirah Lidasan, national spokesperson of Suara Bangsamoro, said they are against the SC ruling.

“We see this as favoring the Ampatuans and clamping down on  public’s freedom of information. Double-standard and favoring the rich. When ordinary Moro citizens are arrested, no SC ruling stops the media from tagging them terrorists even if falsely accused. Yet, the Ampatuans, they are ‘protected’ by court decisions. The public’s right to know should not be compromised to favor the Ampatuans. This is an injustice to the families. It also casts doubts on the court decisions regarding the trial of Maguindanao massacre. Aside from the fact that it has taken so long, several witnesses have been killed and the public’s right to know is even curtailed.”

For Sr. Noemi Degala of the Sisters Association in Mindanao, the massacre is “public knowledge and has affected many psycho-socially for it created fear and trauma. For the people to hear that justice is done will help them move on.”

“This case affected Filipinos, rather it has grabbed international headlines because of its gravity, controversy and of its political nature. So all the more that a live media coverage is needed for the public to know,” she said.

UCCP Bishop Modesto Villasanta, Convenor of Exodus for Justice and Peace said “sakto man pud ang SC pero importante man pud ni sa publiko nga mahibalo sila sa actual nga hitabo labi na nga sa atong gobyerno nga dili bukas sa paghatag og information sa katawhan” (The Supreme Court is also right but it is also important for the public to know what is actually happening especially since our government is not open to giving information to the public).

Jessie Casalda, NUJP-Davao chair said the Supreme Court “should remember that this is a public crime and the main complainants are the People of the Philippines, thus, why should we isolate the people from the trial?  The accused, especially the Ampatuans, are well-represented by their battery of high caliber lawyers who would always make sure that all the rights of the clients are protected.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas, Lorie Ann A. Casacro,  Vanessa Almeda, Walter Balane/MindaNews)