Opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima has decried the unwarranted action of authorities, including the Philippine National Police (PNP) and court officials, to ban media from covering her court hearings, such as during her recent appearance at the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 34, last Oct. 4.
De Lima, the first prominent political prisoner under the Duterte regime, considered the said restriction as a gross violation of press freedom, the right of the public to be informed, and the right of the accused to a public trial, as guaranteed under the 1987 Constitution.
“The authorities are getting more and more unreasonable in restricting media access to my court proceedings and any of my public outings, for that matter,” she said.
“As far as my legal team knows, the Court has not issued any official order – verbal or written – restricting media from covering court proceedings at QC MTC, Branch 34. But how come media were barred during the last hearing? Under whose authority or orders was it?” she asked.
During the hearing at the Quezon City MTC, Branch 34, on De Lima’s “Disobedience to Summons” case last Oct. 4, media were barred by the authorities from covering the hearing without issuance of any court order justifying such restriction.
It was not, however, the first time that the authorities prevented the media from covering the Senator’s court proceedings.
In the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 206, where she is facing trumped-up illegal drug trade case, verbal orders were supposedly issued to the press restricting them from covering court hearings.
The said verbal order in Muntinlupa RTC Branch 206 was allegedly issued under the instructions of Judge Lorna Navarro-Domingo.
“These unreasonable and baseless instructions are unconstitutional. They not only undermine the media’s role as messengers of truth to the public, but also prevent the conduct of an open and public trial,” she said.
Citing from the 1973 case, Garcia v. Domingo, De Lima noted the trial of the accused possesses a character where anyone interested, especially the members of the press, are free to enter the courtroom during the hearing and observe the manner a judge conducts the proceedings in his courtroom.
De Lima said: “There cannot be a legal ban on such attendance, even if enforced through a written court order. Any ban on the attendance of the media is illegal. Being a mere member of the public, even though one may be a stranger to the litigants, is of no moment. Relationship to the parties is not necessary in order to attend court hearings. In criminal trials, this is the essence of the right of the accused to an open and public trial.”
“Closed door or secret trials, or trials where the public, especially the media, are excluded from the court room, are proscribed under the Constitution. This is to guarantee a fair and impartial trial of the accused by the courts. It is to ensure that the courts will not engage in any shenanigan or railroad the conviction of the accused,” she added.
The Senator from Bicol said the Filipino people are also entitled to know the events that transpire in court proceedings that involve a public official like her because they have the right to be informed on matters that affect their representative.
“Understanding that these freedoms are protected precisely to protect and preserve the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, it becomes all the more necessary to allow the members of the media to cover the proceedings where the subject is an elected senator, and the cases involve issues that affect the entire nation – including the issue of government-sponsored summary killings of drug suspects” she said.
According to De Lima, the media restriction on covering court proceedings sends a chilling message to the people that “if it can be done to a public figure like me, to an elected official, it can be done to anyone.” She added: “Being falsely accused based on orchestrated lies, I’m already at a disadvantage. Restricting media access to my court hearings further stunts my chances for a fair trial.”
“When even an elected senator is rendered powerless before the courts, all the more that ordinary citizens are susceptible to transgressions and abuses,” she said.
Aside from the courts, the Philippine National Police has also exerted efforts to keep the media away from De Lima during her public outings by “drowning” her statements with coughing noises.
Considered as a prisoner of conscience, De Lima is currently detained at the PNP-Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City for trumped-up drug charges fabricated by the Duterte administration.