Last January 17, we at Newsbreak received a letter from Special Prosecutor Wendell Sulit asking us to provide her office a “certificate of posting” regarding an article we published in December 2010 titled “Marcelo: Evidence against Garcia enough to convict for plunder.”
That story contained a letter addressed to President Aquino and written by ex-Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio. The two criticized the plea bargain deal entered into by the Ombudsman and retired Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, saying there was sufficient evidence to pin him down for plunder.
Sulit did not mention in her letter why she needed a “certificate of posting” from us. And quite frankly, a certificate of posting did not mean anything to me. The fact that it’s on our site meant we posted it. The letter was also vague on what the certification was for. Was it for a case? The letter merely said, “for legal purposes.”
We decided not to issue any. After that, our office manager Cecille Santos received several calls from the Ombudsman’s office pestering us with the same request. She asked for what purpose, but again the caller was vague. We explained we did not need to issue a certification since it’s our own site. Besides, there were other news organizations that used the same letter; did they also get a similar request? And if we were going to sign off on anything, we might as well know how it’s going to be used.
On Holy Wednesday, we received a subpoena from the Sandiganbayan issued to our deputy editor, Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza, who posted the article, and Cecille. They were asked to appear this morning at the second division courtroom and bring with them, yes, the certification.
We entered the courtroom in good faith, carrying a letter I signed “certifying” that we indeed uploaded the letter. In my less serene moments on Good Friday, I was tempted to make a fuss about this—because I didn’t see the point of being hauled to court over an uploaded letter that practically every major news media organization had—but I gave the Special Prosecutor the benefit of the doubt. This was, after all, about a contempt case that they filed against Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio on the basis of that letter. It wasn’t about us. And so maybe, I thought, the Ombudsman simply wanted this certification.
Boy was I wrong!
This morning, Sandiganbayan Justice Samuel Martires of the second division asked Prosecutor Rabendranath Uy if he had any witnesses to present. Uy turned his back to look at us who were seated right behind him. (A staffer of the Transparency and Accountability Network was also subpoenaed since they uploaded the same letter, which they got from the Newsbreak site, to their site.)
Oh now I get it.
Uy told the court he wanted to know from Newsbreak how it got the letter and who provided it. Gemma was asked to stand, and she said we in fact uploaded the letter two days after major news organizations had written about it.
Where did you get it? We got it from a source. And of course we won’t say who. Now here’s the trick question: did that source get the letter from either Marcelo or Villa-Ignacio. Gemma said we know the letter to be authentic, everyone had it, and even the Office of the President had it.
The justices asked Uy what was the point of bringing Newsbreak to the witness stand. If they allowed this, they might as well subpoena all the news media organizations that wrote about the letter. Would the prosecutors then be able to link all these witnesses to respondents Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio?
Justice Martires then told Uy to relax, saying in so many words that this is a new world. To illustrate, he said his granddaughter opened a Facebook account for him and that even Imelda Marcos was on the popular social networking site.
He told him that based on Gemma’s response, it could be construed that the source must have been the Office of the President. Uh-oh, we didn’t say that. Gemma said, with all due respect, we can’t…
In a lighthearted way, Justice Martires told Uy to just let go, and then he turned to Newsbreak to say, “I forgive you for posting it…the letter was torture.” [In their letter, Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio accused Sandiganbayan justices of withholding information on the Garcia deal from the public.]
Anyway, Uy and his fellow prosecutor Robert Kallos refused to yield. They said they wanted to establish who the source of the letter was—even if this meant asking the rest of the news organizations to testify. “To force them to reveal the source,” Kallos told the court.
You can’t force reporters to identify their source, Justice Martires retorted.
At that point I was so enraged I made side comments and raised my hand! I wanted to say, the Ombudsman filed a case of contempt against Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio and they wanted Newsbreak and the rest of the news media to prove it? And by asking us so casually to identify our source, were they expecting every journalist in her right mind to actually do it?
Thankfully, the justices didn’t cite me for contempt for making some noise and for “illegally” raising my hand. And they also closed the door to further arguments from the prosecutors.
I confess I once dreamt of becoming a lawyer. As a young reporter, I went to the extent of taking an entrance exam at the Ateneo, which in the middle of it I chose not to finish (which technically means, of course, that I didn’t pass). Now I don’t know which profession is more cursed (of course I say this in jest).
After the hearing, I went to Uy to tell him, rather gently, that this isn’t done, that he should not be asking the media to reveal their sources because they won’t. Doesn’t he know that? He tried to explain and said he didn’t mean to hurt us, or words to that effect.
Well, sir, you certainly singled us out. - Newsbreak
TAGS: Dennis Villa-Ignacio, sandiganbayan, Simeon Marcelo, Special Prosecutor, Special Prosecutor Wendell Sulit