The Quezon City regional trial court has dismissed an indirect contempt charge against human rights lawyer Harry L. Roque, Jr. filed in 2011 by a principal accused in the Maguindanao massacre case – Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. – over a History Channel interview the lawyer gave a year before on the celebrated case.
Branch 220 presiding judge Jose G. Paneda, who tried the case, said Datu Unsay failed to show in court that the lawyer’s cable television interview aired on September 26, 2010 on what is now known as the worst attack on press freedom in known history gave rise to a “clear and present danger” to the multiple murder trial.
In so ruling, the judge upheld an established precedent in Philippine jurisprudence that “the advocacy of ideas cannot constitutionally be abridged unless there is clear and present danger that such advocacy will harm the administration of justice.”
The judge said thus: “Under the clear and present danger test, petitioner failed to prove that there exists a substantive evil which is extremely serious and that the degree of its imminence is so exceptionally high as to warrant punishment for contempt.”
“This is a big victory for free expression in relation to a celebrated case where the very right to free expression of 32 journalists and media workers who perished in the massacre were forever denied them,” said Center for International Law (Centerlaw) Executive Director Romel Regalado Bagares, who headed a team of lawyers who defended Roque in court. Centerlaw is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of free expression in the Philippines and Asia.
Datu Unsay, along with other members of his political clan, is alleged to have masterminded with key members of his political clan the murder of 58 persons, including 32 journalists and media workers, on November 23, 2009 in a town in Maguindanao bearing his clan’s name.
He had charged that Roque violated the sub judice rule in cases being heard in court when he told History Channel that key members of the Ampatuan clan were responsible for the massacre and used public funds to perpetuate themselves in power. Under the sub judice rule, litigants in a case are prohibited from discussing in public the merits of the case.
Bagares said the court’s decision is an important contribution to the advancement of free expression in the country.
At the trial, Datu Unsay’s only witness was a technician at his lawyer’s office –Fortun & Narvasa –who recorded the History Channel episode in question. The technician admitted on cross-examination conducted by Centerlaw lawyer Ethel Avisado that Roque did not specifically name anyone in the Ampatuan clan as a massacre suspect. He also admitted that the copy of the video of the History Channel interview he presented in court was not authenticated by the cable television channel.
Judge Paneda said Datu Unsay had the burden to show that Roque’s comments “must really appear that such does impede, interfere with and embarrass the administration of justice.” In this case, all that the petitioner could show was an “abstract accusation” that only resulted in “barren legal questions”.
Under the indirect contempt charge against Roque – a criminal case – a conviction would have meant a fine or a jail term, or both.
“Lawyers occupy an integral role in the administration of justice. Such position justifies the rules and regulations imposed on their conduct because membership in the Bar is a privilege burdened with conditions,” said Judge Paneda in his 12-page decision dated March 11, 2014 but released only yesterday. However, freedom of expression is also secured to them; in this jurisdiction they, like all the others, are given the right to comment on the administration of justice provided their criticisms do not border on disrespect to the authority of the court.”
Roque is also facing two similar indirect contempt charges filed with the Quezon City Regional Trial Court by two other accused in the Ampatuan massacre, the clan patriarch Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. and a certain Datukan Malang Salibo.
Click here for a copy of the decision_Unsay vs Roque