Published 26 January 2024, The Daily Tribune

In a 121-page decision promulgated on 25 April 2023, the Supreme Court en banc in the case of ABS-CBN v. Ampatuan (G.R. 227004) dismissed Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr.’s (Andal) petition for indirect contempt filed against ABS-CBN Corporation (ABS-CBN) and ABS-CBN reporter Jorge Cariño, who were accused in 2010 of violating the “sub judice rule” or gag order of the Regional Trial Court in the Maguindanao massacre case.

In the decision penned by Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, the Supreme Court en banc found an opportunity to prescribe the proper conduct and define the limits of speech of participants in judicial proceedings and harmonize the rules on when to impose the subject punishment of indirect contempt.

In 2009, dozens of armed persons halted the convoy of Maguindanao gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu that was on its way to file his certificate of candidacy. The incident resulted in 57 deaths in what is now known as the Maguindanao Massacre.

In 2010, ABS-CBN reporter Cariño interviewed Lakmodin Saliao (Saliao) who narrated that he was present when the Ampatuan family planned the Maguindanao Massacre. Saliao named the Ampatuan family members who were present at the meetings. He also discovered that he was about to be killed for knowing too much about the massacre.

Saliao’s interview was aired on ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol. The airing of the interview prompted Andal to file a petition before the RTC to cite Saliao, ABS-CBN, and Cariño for indirect contempt, claiming that Saliao’s interview was “calculated to interfere with the court proceedings to serve Saliao’s own interest without passing through the scrutiny of the police or the National Prosecution Service…”

Andal claimed that the interview fell under contemptuous conduct punishable under Rule 71, Section 1 of the Rules of Court. He prayed that Saliao, ABS-CBN, and Cariño be prohibited from making further statements in any forum or media during the pendency of the Maguindanao Massacre cases.

In its decision, the Supreme Court first reexamined the basis of the Court’s contempt powers and defined what constitutes contemptuous speech and why such is punished.

According to the High Court, “[c]ourts 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.” It added that the exercise of contempt powers ensures the decisional and institutional aspects of judicial independence crucial to the administration of justice.

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

Specific to contemptuous speech, it is restrained by the courts by way of punishment for indirect contempt under Rule 71, Section 3(d) of the Rules of Court. Among what is considered contemptuous speech is the violation of the sub judice rule, which generally restricts comments and disclosures pertaining to judicial proceedings, including the contents of actual pleadings filed, comments on the credibility of witnesses, assessment of the evidence offered, the relevance of the evidence presented, and any other matter that is presented in the trial for a judge’s appreciation.

The Court warned that the contempt powers of the court, while they 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 to matters of public interest.

The Court held that all of the following must be alleged in a petition for indirect contempt: (1) that public statements were made regarding the merits of the case while it is pending before the courts; (2) the mental element of the speaker who uttered the contemptuous speech showing that the purpose of the speech is to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice; (3) the clear and present danger of the utterance to the court’s administration of justice, specifically identifying the importance and saliency of the information on the ability of courts to make an impartial decision; (4) the effect of the speech on the administration of justice such that the utterance will influence the court’s independence in ruling on a case, which will, in turn, affect public confidence in the Judiciary.

In the present case of Petition for Contempt, the Court found that Andal’s petition must be dismissed for failing to state all the required facts. The relevant mental element to prove the existence of actual malice or deliberate or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement was not stated.

Neither was there sufficient allegation of the clear and present danger of the interview and its broadcast to the court’s administration of justice.

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