Herbie Gomez .
VETERAN journalist Ed Lingao wrote a very insightful and spot-on piece about the brouhaha resulting from Malacañang’s ban on Rappler and its reporter Pia Ranada on Friday. I asked Ed’s permission to publish it because I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Can the president single out a reporter and ban her, and only her, from covering his office? In a country that likes to fudge the line between the official and the personal, yes he apparently can.
Note though that Malacanang is the official residence and office of the President of the Republic — it is not his personal castle. But given our propensity for fudging the rules, I will leave the legal matter to the lawyers.
The question we are left with is, is the president right to single out a reporter and ban her because he does not like her, or is annoyed by her questions, or feels betrayed because he, at one point, felt like he was treating her like his own granddaughter? The President’s spokesman, Harry Roque, answered this emphatically during his presscon on Monday: “It (banning) is not a ground (just) because someone dislikes you, no!”
A day later, Roque appears to have forgotten his previous answer. “Hindi lang pupuwede magkaroon ngayon ng access sa Presidente dahil bwisit sa kanya ang Presidente,” Roque told reporters on Tuesday. By Tuesday night, Rappler’s Pia Ranada was informed that the ban on her has been expanded. She is not just banned from the Palace itself, but from the entire Malacanang complex, where the Malacanang Press Corps has its working area.
Then, lately, some confusing changes in the narrative. Was it irritation, or the SEC order that is still being appealed, or is it a combination of both?
Just some points to ponder:
- When a government official releases a blacklist (or a ban) on specific reporters, this implies that government officials actually have the right to select who can cover their official functions. By extension, this implies that they also have the right to select which reporters can ask the questions that are acceptable to them. I don’t like you, you cannot cover me. I don’t like what you write, you cannot enter the building. Is this really a right government officials have? No, they do not. Thus, journalists will always oppose any move to ban specific reporters from official coverage.
- But shouldn’t a government official have the right to decide who gets to cover him? It is his office, after all? Of course not. Your office is not your personal space. If a reporter complains that you refuse to give him access to your birthday party at home, then do not worry because you are within your rights. But to deny access to official coverage? THAT would be a sense of entitlement. You can always refer to RA 6713 for the Code of Conduct for Government Officials and Employees.
- Of course, there are procedures and processes to be followed in the course of official coverage. There are many considerations — order, efficiency, security, et cetera. Personal preferences or personal dislikes are not supposed to be among the considerations, because the rules should be applied evenly, and across the board. So if Ranada is banned as Roque says because the President does not like her, that is not a valid reason. If she is banned because there is a violation of the rules on accrediting journalists, then the lawyers, the Malacanang Press Corps (MPC), and the Media Relations and Accreditation Office have their jobs cut out for them. Roque has spoken, the PSG has spoken too. So has the SEC: “[They can] appeal to the Court of Appeals within 15 days. Meanwhile, SEC decision is not final and executory.” — SEC Spokesperson Armand Pan, Jan. 15. The MPC has also spoken out by saying that Ranada is still an accredited member of the MPC.
- Harry Roque argues that the ban does not undermine press freedom because a) other mainstream news outfits still get to cover the President, and b) Ranada can always cover the live broadcasts of the presidential events on television. See, the press is still free! Information still flows outward! Unfortunately, Harry, who has faithfully represented several journalists and their families in court, still does not seem to comprehend fully what journalists do. If the reason for the ban is the one stated by Roque himself, then the ban does undermine press freedom. A government official does not have the right to bar press coverage by a specific media entity just because he does not like that entity. What would stop him, or any other official, from singling out another media org, and then another, and another, for coverage that he does not like? If the Palace does not like a media entity’s output, then there are true legal outlets for their use. Calling their output “fake news” certainly does not help, especially since Palace officials, from Roque down to Mocha, do not appear to be clear with their definitions of what amounts to fake news. When the President uses his office to proclaim (again) that Rappler is owned by the CIA, what do we call that? Cutting access to an annoying reporter also serves notice to other reporters to toe the line or be banned. In another lifetime, I believe Harry would have spoken out against that idea.
There is no reason to complain because you are still free to write about your complaints? Well, that is like saying you should only complain when you can no longer complain.
- Sec. Roque also says Rappler can still cover by watching the live broadcasts of the President. Again, a misunderstanding of the job of journalists. Journalists do not just cover by watching a press conference passively and then writing what was said. That is just regurgitating and repackaging government’s line. Propagandists and mouthpieces do that. Journos should cover by asking questions, by probing, by digging around. And by challenging when necessary. Sure, there are plenty reporters who just cover the TV, take notes, and then write the 5Ws and 1H. That is far from the ideal. Really, do you want journalists to cover, or do you just want mouthpieces?
- Then there is the issue with the PSG commander who says that Ranada should be thankful that the guard she was pestering did not hurt her. Fortunately, Defense Secretary Lorenzana was courageous enough to call out the PSG commander for his inappropriate remark. Make no mistake, it is not uncommon for close-in presidential guards to manhandle reporters who get in the way or who may pose a threat to their principal. We actually try to understand their job, and they try to understand ours. Pagkatapos ng balyahan, ser, pasensya na lang po, trabaho lang. In covering presidents, I have gotten shoved and pushed by close-in PSG security. When Erap fled Malacanang in 2001, we even took a tumble because PSG close-in got really physical when Erap was rushing to the launch that would ferry him across the Pasig. But Ranada was just grilling a guard who refused to let her through the gate to the New Executive Building, not the Presidential Palace. I I am not aware of any rule that allows the PSG to hurt anyone who is annoying, persistent, or even rude. Apparently, neither is Secretary Lorenzana.
If being rude is enough reason to hurt someone, then there are a lot of people, in and out of the Palace, who would have already gotten hurt. Fortunately, it is not.