Radio & TV Coverage of Ampatuan (A.M. No. 10-11-5-SC; June 14, 2011)


FACTS: On November 23, 2009, 57 people including 32 journalists and media practitioners were killed while on their way to Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao. Touted as the worst election-related violence and the most brutal killing of journalists in recent history, the tragic incident which came to be known as the "Maguindanao Massacre" spawned charges for 57 counts of murder and an additional charge of rebellion against 197 accused, docketed as Criminal Case Nos. Q-09-162148-72, Q-09-162216-31, Q-10-162652-66, and Q-10-163766, commonly entitled People v. Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr.,et al. Following the transfer of venue and the re-raffling of the cases, the cases are being tried by Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon Cityinside Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.Almost a year later or on November 19, 2010, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, GMA Network, Inc., relatives of the victims, individual journalists from various media entities, and members of the academe filed a petition before this Court praying that live television and radio coverage of the trial in these criminal cases be allowed, recording devices (e.g., still cameras, tape recorders) be permitted inside the courtroom to assist the working journalists, and reasonable guidelines be formulated to govern the broadcast coverage and the use of devices. The Court docketed the petition as A.M. No. 10-11-5-SC.

Petitioners seek the lifting of the absolute ban on live television and radio coverage of court proceedings.They principally urge the Court to revisit the 1991 ruling in Re: Live TV and Radio Coverage of the Hearing of President Corazon C. Aquino's Libel Case and the 2001 ruling inRe: Request Radio-TV Coverage of the Trial in the Sandiganbayan of the Plunder Cases Against the Former President Joseph E. Estrada which rulings, they contend, violate the doctrine that proposed restrictions on constitutional rights are to be narrowly construed and outright prohibition cannot stand when regulation is a viable alternative.

Petitioners state that the trial of the Maguindanao Massacre cases has attracted intense media coverage due to the gruesomeness of the crime, prominence of the accused, and the number of media personnel killed.They inform that reporters are being frisked and searched for cameras, recorders, and cellular devices upon entry, and that under strict orders of the trial court against live broadcast coverage, the number of media practitioners allowed inside the courtroom has been limited to one reporter for each media institution.

The record shows that NUJP Vice-Chairperson Jose Jaime Espina, by January 12, 2010 letter to Judge Solis-Reyes, requested a dialogue to discuss concerns over media coverage of the proceedings of the Maguindanao Massacre cases.Judge Solis-Reyes replied, however, that "matters concerning media coverage should be brought to the Courts attention through appropriate motion." Hence, the present petitions which assert the exercise of the freedom of the press, right to information, right to a fair and public trial, right to assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances, right of free access to courts, and freedom of association,subjectto regulations to be issued by the Court.

ISSUE: Should trial be broadcast?

HELD: The Court partially grants pro hac vice petitioners prayer for a live broadcast of the trial court proceedings,subject to the guidelines which shall be enumerated shortly.

Respecting the possible influence of media coverage on the impartiality of trial court judges, petitioners correctly explain that prejudicial publicity insofar as it undermines the right to a fair trial must pass the"totality of circumstances"test, applied in People v. Teehankee, Jr. and Estrada v. Desierto,]that the right of an accused to a fair trial is not incompatible to a free press, that pervasive publicity is not per se prejudicial to the right of an accused to a fair trial, and that there must be allegation and proof of the impaired capacity of a judge to render a bias-free decision.Mere fear of possible undue influence is not tantamount to actual prejudice resulting in the deprivation of the right to a fair trial.

Moreover, an aggrieved party has ample legal remedies.He may challenge the validity of an adverse judgment arising from a proceeding that transgressed a constitutional right.As pointed out by petitioners, an aggrieved party may early on move for a change of venue, for continuance until the prejudice from publicity is abated, for disqualification of the judge, and for closure of portions of the trial when necessary.The trial court may likewise exercise its power of contempt and issue gag orders.

One apparent circumstance that sets the Maguindanao Massacre cases apart from the earlier cases is the impossibility of accommodating even the parties to the cases the private complainants/families of the victims and other witnesses inside the courtroom.

Even before considering what is a "reasonable number of the public" who may observe the proceedings, the peculiarity of the subject criminal cases is that the proceedings already necessarily entail the presence of hundreds of families.It cannot be gainsaid that the families of the 57 victims and of the 197 accused have as much interest, beyond mere curiosity, to attend or monitor the proceedings as those of the impleaded parties or trial participants.It bears noting at this juncture that the prosecution and the defense have listed more than 200 witnesses each.

The impossibility of holding such judicial proceedings in a courtroom that will accommodate all the interested parties, whether private complainants or accused, is unfortunate enough.What more if the right itself commands that a reasonable number of the general public be allowed to witness the proceeding as it takes place inside the courtroom.Technology tends to provide the only solution to break the inherent limitations of the courtroom, to satisfy the imperative of a transparent, open and public trial.

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