Sandigan: FB post by gov’t witness protected by freedom of speech

    934

    THE Sandiganbayan has thrown out a petition filed by Romblon Rep. Eleandro Madrona and two former provincial agriculturists to cite a government witness in contempt of court for posting comments on Facebook regarding their pending graft case.

    Sixth Division Associate Justices Sarah Jane T. Fernandez, Karl B. Miranda and Kevin Narce B. Vivero unanimously ruled to dismiss the petition, saying the Facebook posts of prosecution witness Lyndon Molino were his personal sentiment and opinion which “merely gave a fair commentary on an issue imbued with public interest.”

    Where there is no apparent “criminal intent to impede, obstruct or degrade the administration of justice” the Sandiganbayan said such posts on social media on a pending case should not be unduly restricted by the court’s “drastic and extraordinary” power to punish for contempt.

    “Whether these statements are true or not, they fall within the purview of freedom of speech. A public utterance or publication is not to be denied the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press merely because it concerns a judicial proceeding still pending in the courts,” the anti-graft court declared.

    The petition for indirect contempt stemmed from Molino’s FB post on the trial of the graft case against Madrona and provincial agriculturists Geishler Fadri and Oscar Galos, who were accused of involvement in irregularities concerning the procurement of P4.8 million worth of liquid fertilizer in 2004.

    The Office of the Ombudsman indicted the defendants for non-compliance with the requirement for public bidding of government contracts set under RA 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act.

    Madrona, Fadiri and Galos claimed Molino posted malicious remarks when he compared the case of convicted former Sorsogon governor Raul Lee with the pending charges by pointing out that the two cases shared several similarities: same supplier, Feshan Phils.; same price of P1,500 per bottle; and same finding of lack of public bidding.

    In another post, Molino disclosed that he was set to be called to the witness stand after the presentation of the testimonies of two lawyers from the Commission on Audit. He said he is hoping the trial will move faster so the court can render a decision earlier.

    The accused public officials said the FB posts violated their right to have an impartial trial because Molino’s posts delved into the merits of the case and prematurely concluded that they are guilty of the offense charged.

    However, the Sandiganbayan said it found the “clear and present danger” rule is not applicable since the independence and integrity of the Judiciary was not threatened in any way.

    It noted that the details included in Molino’s posts are matters of trial records that are accessible to the public at any time.

    The court likewise shot down any suspicion that the similarities between the Sorsogon and Romblon cases have any influence on how it will resolve the case.

    “The determination of the guilt of the petitioner in the Romblon case would depend solely on the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defense. There is nothing in the post that undermines the ability of the Court to pass judgment with impartiality,” it stressed.