Bulatlat takes Esperon's request for blocking of website to court

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Bulatlat takes Esperon's request for blocking of website to court
Activist groups marched from University of the Philippines Diliman to the Commision on Human Rights on June 4, 2020 to protest the passage of the "Anti-Terrorism Act."
Philstar.com / EC Toledo IV

MANILA, Philippines — Independent media organization Bulatlat.com is taking the government’s arbitrary blocking of public access to its website — that cited baseless terrorist connections and the anti-terrorism law, despite the measure not sanctioning the move — to the court.

Alipato Media Center that publishes Bulatlat.com filed a complaint before the Quezon City court on Friday to ask it to issue a Temporary Restraining Order and a Writ of Preliminary Injunction to enjoin the National Telecommunications Commission from enforcing its memorandum that ordered the immediate blocking of Bulatlat's website and of more than 20 other groups.

Ultimately, Bulatlat, through their counsels from the National Union of Peoples Lawyers, asked the court to nullify NTC’s memorandum and award them with P1.00 for damage.

Aside from the NTC, the National Security Council and former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon are also named as respondents.

Bulatlat asserted that it is engaged in news, and not "affiliated to and are supporting" terrorists, as Esperon wrote in his letter-request as justification for his request for blocking of the public’s access to more than 20 websites.

“Plaintiff and any person serving in the editorial board as well as staff of Bulatlat.com are not in any way affiliated to and/or are supporting terrorists and terrorist organizations,” the complaint read.

“As there is no factual or legal bases therefore, none of them designated, much less being prosecuted for any of the prohibited acts under the Republic Act 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020,” it added.

Alarms have been raised with Esperon’s letter, made public a week before he steps down, with the arbitrariness of the order, supposedly based on the powers of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, that not only covered independent media websites but also of progressive groups.

Ultra vires

Bulatat said the NTC memorandm is ultra vires (beyond legal power of authority) as it stressed that nothing in the EO that created the NTC and RA 7925 or the Public Telecommunications Policy Act of the Philippines “clothes the NTC with the power to block websites listed in the memorandum… without securing a court order.”

This makes the memorandum that ordered the blocking of the access to the websites illegal and should be nullified by the court, they said.

Bulatlat also said the order violated their freedom of press, speech and expression. “The questioned Memorandum cited no constitutionally permissible restriction to the Plaintiff’s freedom of expression and speech. There is no danger, real, imminent, clear and/or present danger that would pass the standard of strict scrutiny to justify the blocking of access to the Plaintiff’s website,” the complaint read.

They also pointed out that while Esperon cited three Anti-Terrorism Council, where the former sits as vice chairperson, resolution designating certain groups, Bulatlat is not among them and blocking of a website is not a sanction of the ATA.

The ATA only holds designation would trigger the Anti-Money Laundering Council’s powers to freeze assets of the tagged individuals or organizations.

When the NTC “mechanically adopted” Esperson’s conclusion on his letter request, the commission also deprived the complainant with the right to be heard, in violation of its right to due process.

They told the court: “By issuing and continuing to enforce its 8 June 2022 Memorandum, Defendant NTC at the behest of Defendants NSC and Esperon, not only impedes, but also prevents Plaintiff from pursuing its corporate purpose and exercising its clear and unmistakable right to publish such news, analyses, investigative reports, and commentaries,” it said.

“It cannot gainsaid that such right is guaranteed by the Constitution and the enforcement by Defendant NTC of the Subject Memorandum is a material and substantial invasion of such right,” Bulatlat added.

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