Federal Court alerted about press coverage limitations of Title III

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Photo by Dennis Rivera | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico

Title III proceedings of the PROMESA Act, historical for the people of Puerto Rico whose economic and social future are on the line, and for the judiciary, because they had never been tried in the constitutional trajectory of Puerto Rico and the United States, will continue for now without adjustments to address the fact that the process is in English, which is not the primary language for most Puerto Ricans.

So said U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico Chief Judge Aida Delgado-Colón, who, in agreement with Judge Laura Taylor Swain, presiding judge at the proceedings, responded to a request from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) for some measures to be taken that would result in better journalistic coverage and a greater public understanding of the processes.

The CIJ raised the media coverage limitations that were evident in the first session of the case, from the fact that the arguments and documents, which primarily address complex financial terms, are only available in English, to the fact that the journalists are not allowed to use devices such as computers or telephones in the room to help record and disseminate incidents.

“First is the matter of language, which is in itself probably the most important barrier for us to fully understand all the details and nuances, specially the technical ones, in this kind of proceeding,” the CIJ said in its letter.

“Because of the stated historic and social implications of these Title III proceedings for the people of Puerto Rico, we urge you to reconsider your guidelines and work together with us so that we can better inform the public and do so in the timeliest of manners which, during that crucial first hearing became an impossible feat,” the CIJ also noted.

“While some who are interested in following the case may experience difficulties in understanding the English language, we must proceed in English, and we hope that ensuring public access to the written case record may serve to ease such difficulties by affording opportunities to study the documents with the assistance of others who are more familiar with English,” Swain and Delgado responded.

Contrary to what had been reported by several media, Judge Laura Taylor Swain did not request at the first hearing to translate the documents of the case into Spanish, but only the edict-type advertisement to be published in national and United States-based newspapers to advise interested parties in the judicial process that they must appear in court.

The CIJ also noted as a limitation the prohibition of recording the proceedings.

“We understand that this case is so crucial for the people and history of Puerto Rico, a people whose first language is not English, that discretion should be procured from the proper authorities in the federal courts system so any of the following be allowed: simultaneous broadcasting, use of reporter’s phones to record, or publication of audio recording immediately following the proceeding, as is the case in some district and appellate courts. At least this way we can have a permanent record to make reference…,” the CIJ said.

In other cases that have been conducted in that court, arrangements have been made for reporters to take notes with their computers or use their phones to write and tweet.

On that matter, the judges said: “It is the policy of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative policy-making body for the federal judiciary, to prohibit broadcasting, televising, recording or taking photos in the courtroom. Moreover, pursuant to Local Rule 83F9(b) of this District, the taking of photographs and the use of radio, television, or other broadcasting equipment inside the courthouse is prohibited.”

In the letter sent on May 19, the CIJ further noted that: “the acoustics on the courtroom are terrible. Specially for journalists sitting on the last line (row), as they were instructed. This has to do not only with the speakers and the lawyers that speak away from the mic, but also to the fact that lawyers speak in front of you giving their back to us. It’s pretty much impossible to see them and try to decipher what they are articulating. One possible solution could be to have reporters sit in the jury section, the place in the courtroom that’s probably better suited to catch all the interaction between Your Honor and counsel.

Judge Delgado acknowledged this problem and responded: “all courtroom technology and electronic equipment in our courtroom is being upgraded. This project has an expected completion date of October 2017.”

But between June and October, there are at least three additional hearings scheduled, according to judge Swain’s calendar, which calls for holding five hearings before year’s end: June 28; August 9; September 27; November 15; and December 20.

“As to the seating arrangements at the last PROMESA hearing, members of the press were provided with reserved seats in the last two rows within the main courtroom. This was due to the fact that we had to accommodate over 100 attorneys who were representing participants in the case. We nonetheless reserved 20 seats for members of the press in the main courtroom, in a location that would permit them to enter and leave  the courtroom freely.”

“Regarding the possibility of allowing members of the press to sit in the jury box; this practice is not allowed in the District. This area is traditionally reserved for case participants only. We understand that members of the press sometimes need to leave the courtroom while the proceeding is in progress and we consistently have allowed for wide latitude in this regard. Such flexibility would not be possible if members of the media were sitting in the jury box. Nonetheless, you recommendations regarding press seating will be considered in relation to future proceedings and determinations may be made on a case by case basis,” Delgado said.

The CIJ indicated that it will continue to look for ways to improve the conditions for coverage of the Title III process, for which it will request a meeting with the judges. The organization has already offered two seminars for journalists on the PROMESA Law and a public forum that explained the scope of the law.