SC rescues Customs reporters from Biazon

SC rescues Customs 
reporters from Biazon
Commissioner Ruffy Biazon

The Supreme Court (SC) virtually helped the reporters in their fight against acts of suppression of press freedom at the Bureau of Customs.

The High Court ordered Commissioner Rozzano Rufino B. Biazon to comment on the petition of Customs media men seeking to stop him from implementing a memorandum regulating the entry of journalists in that hot zone.

Customs media men were compelled to file last Dec. 14, 2011 a petition for prohibition with a prayer for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to provisionally stop the bureau from implementing Customs Memorandum Order No. 37-2011.

After learning of the filing of the petition, the bureau did not proceed with the scheduled implementation of the same memo on Dec. 16. 

This is the reason that the urgency was lost in fact for the application of a TRO and the Supreme Court did not see any more reason for its issuance.

The same petition was filed by members of two groups of media men at the Bureau, which groups are Customs Media Association, Inc. and Customs Tri Media Association, Inc.

The petition was made possible by Alab ng Mamamahayag (ALAM) through its president Berteni “Toto” Cataluña Causing and legal officer Cirilo P. Sabarre Jr. and Ronaldo E. Renta.

Since his appointment as Customs boss last September 15, Commissioner Biazon boldly announced that he was determined to eradicate “hao shiao” or fake journalists covering the bureau.

Taking the cudgels for Customs mediamen, Causing shot back by writing an expressive article entitled “Hit the smugglers, not the reporters.”

Causing also lectured in that article that the freedom of the press cannot be abridged by any law, much less with any policy declaration or regulations or accreditation that may be passed by the bureau.

The beginning

After taking his oath, Biazon proceeded with his threats and issued that memorandum trying to implement a procedure that requires accreditation requirements and permit before one can cover or interview inside any of the Customs offices.

In their petition, the Customs journalists emphatically declared: “What is freedom of the press with nothing to write?”

It was pointed out in the petition that restrictions or regulations in the gathering of information from any public offices constitutes a prior restraint that effectively prevents any newsman from writing anything because he had nothing to write.

It is recalled that before the memorandum was issued and the petition was filed, Biazon called in a press conference where he apologized to media practitioners saying they are not the “hao-shiaos” he was referring to.

Not contented by his answers, reporters challenged Biazon to pinpoint who among them are “hao-shiaos.”  Biazon did not commit any answer.

In effect the press conference looked like it was meant to mend sour relationship between reporters and Biazon.

The reporters were shocked when they learned in the second week of December 2011 that Biazon already signed a memorandum meant to suppress press freedom in the ports.

The members and officers of the Calabarzon Chapter of ALAM

The contents of the petition

The petition of the Customs reporters said further:

 “To prevent a person from gathering facts in public offices restrains that person from exercising that sacred right of the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS, the highest among the tier of rights.

“Any form of regulation that hampers or deters the exercise of the right to gather information or facts from public places or elsewhere outside the zone of privacy or the zone of state or national security is as good as restraining the exercise of the right to exercise this right fought for by our forefathers.

“And to note, this freedom of the press is not the exclusive province alone of reporters or journalists, but ordinary people living or sojourning in the Philippines.  This is because Section 4 of Article III of the 1987 Constitution grants this right to all people.”

The same Section 4 declares: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press…”

“Imagine a country without reporters!

“Or imagine a country with reporters but without or limited right to gather information for them to publish.

“Intricately connected with the freedom of the press clause is the inviolable right of the people to information of public interest, saving only a few aspects that affect the very life and limb of the State and the life of the people themselves.  These few exceptions, however, can only be guaranteed supremacy if the existence of the danger to the state’s life and limb and the people’s lives is in the degree of clear and present.

“In the Bureau of Customs that is the respondent in the instant petition, there is no such thing as clear and present danger that exists against the State or the people.

“Customs Memorandum Order No. 37-2011 seeks to implement an accreditation procedure that limit or prevent the access to the facts and information that are found inside the Bureau of Customs offices. These data are undisputedly matters of public interest. 

“The only way for the people to know if those appointed to the Bureau of Customs are performing within expectations is to allow journalists and other persons to see how these Customs officials and personnel perform their work: whether they steal monies from the duties and taxes that should go to the government of the people, by means of allowing or doing the acts permitting mis-declaration and under-declaration of importations, and allowing strictly regulated items, prohibited goods and illegal goods such as drugs.

“Upon these premises, the petitioners who are all involved in the daily exercise of press freedom inside the zone of the Bureau of Customs, respectfully file this Petition for Prohibition seeking a writ from the Honorable Court to enjoin the public respondent that is the Bureau of Customs from implementing its “ACCREDITATION” guidelines seeking to regulate or limit the exercise of the freedom of the press, particularly in the aspect of the gathering of facts from different public offices inside its zone, inside any offices of the Bureau.

Press accreditation is like
applying for business permits

“The requirements of accreditation that are only required from entities applying for business permits, which requirements are not reasonable for the petitioners who are not doing business but public service.”

The accreditation demands from reporters, writers and photographers documents and other matters only adds difficulty for the petitioners to cover or gather facts.

Among these requirements are for columnists to get first visitation pass from the information office of the bureau before they are allowed to enter the BOC and conduct media rounds. This is in addition to documentation to prove they are on assignment.

The accreditation also requires reporters to agree to “Terms and Conditions” fixed by the bureau, as if treating the matter of press freedom that does not give any gain as an ORDINARY CONTRACT between parties.

It also requires that interviews must be pre-arranged first with the information office.

It also prohibits reporters from loitering without a pass from the information office.

It also requires of the reporters to assure that the information to be obtained shall be used only on “bona fide” news reporting, tantamount to dictating how and what to report or published.

 “Imagine also that the same memorandum requires of reporters, writers and photographers to make them apply as if they would sell goods on the sidewalks of Divisoria or be one who would be allowed to exercise a profession when to exercise press freedom is a vocation and not a profession,” said Causing.

Causing is also the president of Hukuman ng Mamamayan Movement, Inc., (HMMI), a group that is involved in educational campaign to educate the Filipinos of the jury system to replace the century-old rotten justice system that has bred impunity in killing reporters, peasants and political enemies.  The jury system of justice is also an agenda of ALAM partylist.

Causing pointed out that the harshest of all in the accreditation memorandum is making the Bureau of Customs as a judge to hear and decide press freedom issues involving reporters it has already accredited.

“This is very clear to be a usurpation of the powers of the Congress.  It has converted itself into a court and judge for the journalists they accredited, Causing stressed.
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