The order to bar Rappler’s reporter on the presidential beat, Pia Ranada, from entering the Palace and then, belatedly, from the entire Palace complex, is alarming and outrageous—and the changing and sometimes conflicting justifications the administration offered only underscored the deeply disturbing decision-making behind the order.
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said the Securities and Exchange Commission decision to revoke Rappler’s incorporation papers was the reason for the ban. But both the SEC and the Palace itself had previously tried to soothe public unease over the revocation by pointing out that it was not yet final and executory. In other words, until the day Ranada was stopped by the Presidential Security Group from entering Malacañang, the administration had given no sign that it had changed its mind on Rappler’s status.
Indeed, there is no reason to think that the SEC decision should be regarded as final; Rappler has filed suit at the Court of Appeals, and that case is still very much pending. And Malacañang cannot be the final arbiter of Rappler’s corporate status; that is not a matter within its competence.
But this flawed, legalistic reason was undercut by another justification offered by President Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque, once a lawyer of some repute. Only a day after telling the Malacañang Press Corps that personal dislike for a reporter was “not a valid reason” for barring that reporter from covering the news in Malacañang, Roque said the following in a radio interview: “Hindi lang pupuwede magkaroon ngayon ng access sa Presidente dahil buwisit sa kanya ang Presidente.” He must have thought this reason, with its suggestion of a temporary phase, was a concession to Rappler and to the public, but in fact it only strengthened the argument that the decision was an attack on press freedom. “It’s just that she cannot have access to the President now because the President is exasperated with her.”
(Perhaps Roque can take a few minutes every day from his unabashed premature campaigning for the Senate to review his statements from the previous day, to help straighten his messaging.)
Roque later suggested another reason for the ban on Ranada (and, unaccountably, on Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa, who is not even accredited with the Malacañang Press Corps): He called Rappler news stories fake, and the news site itself as a fake Filipino company. He is mistaken on both counts; not even the narrowly argued SEC decision implies that Rappler is not Filipino, only that it is not 100-percent Filipino. And the material facts in the stories from Rappler and from the Inquirer that showed that the Presidential Management Staff had shown an unusual interest in a Philippine Navy purchase decision were not denied or even refuted by Special Assistant to the President Bong Go’s appearance before an unctuous Senate.
On Thursday, Roque returned to his original justification, but with a domestic twist: “If in your own home, your visitors will insult you, will you blame yourself if you ask those who insult you to leave your home?” He then said Ranada had insulted Mr. Duterte: “Eh nabastos po ang Presidente.”
He is talking of the same man who, when a correspondent inquired about the state of his health, took offense and in retaliation later insulted the genitals of the wife of (as it turned out) the wrong correspondent. And Roque himself, only several weeks ago, sought to remind opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV to not overreact to perceived slights, quoting at him that unforgettable passage from one of the great Supreme Court decisions, US vs Bustos: “Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience.”
He should remind his principal and his political allies of this fundamental price of democracy. As Justice George Malcolm wrote: “The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom.”
This is a favorite passage of Roque’s, which he has cited again and again. The paragraph ends this way: “Rising superior to any official or set of officials, to the Chief Executive, to the Legislature, to the Judiciary—to any or all the agencies of Government—public opinion should be the constant source of liberty and democracy.” News organizations like Rappler have a constitutionally guaranteed role to play in the formation of public opinion. Barring a Palace reporter from covering the Palace because her news stories exasperate the President is the very definition of a press freedom issue.
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