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Provisional Senate chamber provides limited access to press, public

By on March 28, 2017

SAN JUAN – As of Tuesday, and at least until the end of this ordinary session, which concludes June 30, the Puerto Rico Senate will convene in the Leopoldo Figueroa Hall, to which a wooden platform covered by a red carpet was installed for the 30 desks and leather armchairs used by the legislators in the Senate chamber, but lacks a space for the public and leaves limited visual access for the press.

Even though public access to the sessions is limited to closed-circuit viewing–that is, from an audience room in the building adjacent to the Senate from which they may observe the session on a TV screen–Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz assured this complies with the constitutional decree that sessions must be open to the public.

This is the space provided to journalists in the Senate's provisional hemicycle, in the Leopoldo Figueroa audience room. Photojournalists could do their labor through the window to the right. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

The space provided to journalists in the Senate’s provisional chamber in the Leopoldo Figueroa Hall. Photojournalists are supposed to use the window on the right of the image. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

“There’s no doubt that’s the way it is [that the Constitution is being complied with] and we are acting on an emergency situation, not on a mere whim. Likewise, if there were a courtroom with 20 available seats and 100 people want to see it, what do we do? Are we infringing on the rights of 80 people? We would prefer…. This is the best we could do given our circumstances and avoiding excessive spending,” the Senate president said in reference to construction work being carried out in the regular Senate chamber.

Before the beginning the session, Rivera Schatz told the media that few people go to the Senate gallery to view the sessions because there is online access to the sessions. “In fact, they are public [the sessions], nothing is happening behind the backs of the people of Puerto Rico,” he insisted.

However, for Eduardo Bhatia, who was the previous Senate president and now Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority whip, the fact sessions are broadcast online doesn’t mean it is in abidance with the constitutional provision that they be public, which is why he urged Rivera Schatz to provide space—even if limited—to the public when requested beforehand and to discuss access to the press with the various media outlets.

“That wasn’t in compliance [with the Constitution] in the past and it won’t be in compliance now. We already lived through this chapter once, we are reverting to the same. This is exactly the same as when they removed the press from the chamber and said watching [the session] via internet complied with the constitutional clause. Obviously, this isn’t what the Constitution meant… Freedom of the press, anywhere and more in a forum like this, demands that you go a little beyond just having them in a back room,” Bhatia said at the beginning of the session.

Upon Bhatia’s statement, Rivera Schatz said that, at the temporary space, “the press is closer to the chamber than in the regular chamber.”

“We aim to provide [the press] the most space…. A monitor was placed in the annex, so every bench there is used [to see the session]. We have tried to make it as comfortable as possible. Everyone has had to sacrifice commodity a little bit, including the press. Everyone has had to sacrifice a little comfort, the press too. Senators have had to sacrifice comfort, citizens have had to sacrifice comfort, the press as well,” the Senate president insisted.

The Senate hasn't revealed how much it will cost to repair the regular hemicycle, nor how much money was invested in the Leopoldo Figueroa provisional hemicycle, pictured. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

The Senate hasn’t revealed how much it will cost to repair the regular hemicycle, nor how much money was invested in the Leopoldo Figueroa provisional hemicycle, pictured. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

For his part, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Sen. Juan Dalmau told journalists that he hadn’t analyzed whether the provisional chamber complied with the constitutional statute. However, he defended the media’s right to maximum access at the Capitol.

Dalmau added that he voted against the Senate ruling that bestowed its president with the power to oversee protocol related to media access in the Capitol, as well as the possibility to order the arrest of people who break the law within the building’s premises. “Everyone who voted in favor of that regulation should answer you,” he said.

After beginning the session, a TV photojournalist arrived to the provisional chamber, but left moments after seeing limited possibilities of taking video with his camera. Unless photojournalists are given access to the chamber, they have to use a window at the back of the room to take their photos and videos, with the senators with their backs to them.

“Access [to photojournalists] will be the same as over there, at certain moments and not unrestrictedly. Just as with the chamber upstairs [in the Capitol’s second and third floors], exactly the same. The speaker has to ask for authorization because it isn’t unrestricted upstairs and it won’t be here [in the provisional chamber],” the Senate president said.

During the session, photojournalists were allowed access to the chamber for Consumer Affairs Secretary Michael Pierluisi‘s confirmation hearing.

In 2015, the Senate chamber’s ceiling was seriously damaged and scaffolding was erected to begin the repair work. Yet it was not until this month that the space was cleared to make way for the repair work. The Capitol’s Superintendency is in charge of conducting the repair work.

Neither the investment in the Leopoldo Figueroa Hall nor an estimate of for the repairs in the historic chamber have been revealed.

Regarding Rivera Schatz’s criticism that the Senate ceiling’s problems had not been addressed during the past four years, Bhatia—who presided over the Senate during that period—said a “structural analysis” was carried out, but that it was in the hands of the Capitol Superintendency to begin the work.

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