Philippines: Court orders NTC to unblock Bulatlat website

A Quezon City court has ordered the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) to cease blocking the website of independent media outlet Bulatlat, after it was accused of being affiliated with terrorist organisations. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), in welcoming the decision of the court to respect press freedom and uphold a free and independent media in the Philippines.

Members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) during a press freedom protest in front of the ABS-CBN building in Manila on February 21, 2020. Credit: Basilio Sepe / AFP

On August 11, Judge Dolly Rose Bolante-Prado, of Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 306, granted Bulatlat’s petition for a preliminary injunction against the blocking order from the NTC.

The Court’s decision cited Bulatlat’s “clear and unmistakeable” right to protection under articles of press freedom and freedom of speech within the Constitution of the Philippines. The court order read, “to the Court, any limitation or restriction in the exercise of one’s right, no matter the extent, is a form of deprivation and clearly a violation of such right”

In the final months of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential term, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. requested the NTC block access to 27 websites, including two news websites, Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly. Esperion alleged that the organisations were affiliated with terrorist groups, including the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Independent news organisation Bulatlat, which was not notified in advance of the block, has engaged in a two-month legal process to reverse the decision. On July 13, the Quezon City RTC 306 first denied Bulatlat’s petition to unblock access to their website, arguing that as the court could access the website there was no suppression of free speech.

At the August 2 hearing, however, Bulatlat were able to prove access to their site was diminished. A Bulatlat affidavit described how the blocking order had denied readers, writers and contributors access, leading to a 44 per cent drop in monthly site traffic.

Bulatlat is a leading alternative online publication in the Philippines that, as described in its mission statement, aims to fight against oppression and misuse of power by government officials, and fight for truth, justice and freedom.

The NUJP said: “NUJP welcomes the court injunction as an initial victory for press freedom, and as proof that collective action can push back against attacks on independent media. We hope this decision is one step towards scrapping this warped interpretation of the Anti-Terrorism Act.”

The IFJ said:“Restricting access to independent digital media organisations violates the fundamental rights to press freedom and freedom of expression enshrined in the Philippines’ constitution. The IFJ welcomes the decision of the Quezon City court and urges the authorities of the Philippines to cease all forms of censorship and legal harassment of independent media.”

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