SC junks contempt raps filed by Ampatuan vs. ABS-CBN

<p><em>(File photo)</em></p>

(File photo)

MANILA – The Supreme Court (SC) turned down the indirect contempt charges filed against broadcast firm ABS-CBN Corporation and its reporter in connection with a news report on the Ampatuan family's involvement in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

In a news release Friday, the SC said it dismissed the petition filed by Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr. against ABS-CBN and Jorge Cariño regarding a 2010 report aired on early evening news program TV Patrol.

In the decision written by Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the court granted the petition filed by ABS-CBN and Cariño challenging the ruling of the Court of Appeals which affirmed a lower court’s refusal to dismiss the indirect contempt petition.

The SC said that the contempt powers of the court, while may be used to restrict the speech of the media and the public, must not be broadly exercised as to deter the freedom of the press and its right to give legitimate publicity of matters of public interest.

“Our power to punish for contempt should never be wielded to stifle comments on public interest,” it ruled.

“Those accused of indirect contempt should not be compelled to proceed to trial when the charges are grossly insufficient,” the court said.

“Responsible journalism is said to be the handmaiden of effective judicial administration, especially in the criminal field. The press does not simply publish information about trials but guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors, and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism,” it added.

Fifty-seven, some of them journalists, died in what is now known as the Maguindanao massacre.

Criminal cases for murder were subsequently filed against 197 persons, including members of the Ampatuan family.

In Cariño's report, witness Lakmodin Saliao narrated that he was present when the Ampatuan family planned the massacre.

The report prompted Ampatuan’s petition against Saliao, ABS-CBN, and Cariño, claiming that the interview was “calculated to interfere with court proceedings to serve Saliao’s own interest without passing through the scrutiny of the police of the National Prosecution Service.”

Ampatuan also prayed that Saliao, ABS-CBN, and Cariño be prohibited from making further statements in any forum or media during the pendency of the murder cases.

“Courts exercise inherent contempt powers by restricting speech that tends to bring the court into disrespect or scandalize the court, or where there is clear and present danger that would impede the administration of justice,” the SC said.

It added that the exercise of contempt powers ensures the decisional and institutional aspects of judicial independence crucial in the administration of justice.

The SC, however, cautioned that given its “drastic and extraordinary” nature, the exercise of contempt powers must be restrained and judicious and “used only in flagrant cases and with utmost forbearance.”

“The rationale of the sub judice rule is to protect against the dangers of the publication to directly influence a judge or indirectly through public opinion in resolving a particular case,” the SC held.

It added that while the right to free speech includes the right to know and discuss judicial proceedings, this does not include statements that are aimed to influence judges in deciding a pending case.

The SC cautioned, however, that there must be “a showing of the serious and imminent threat of an utterance on the court’s administration of justice before it can be punished.” (Benjamin Pulta/PNA)