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Insidious censorship

Posted in Censorship, Constitutional Rights, Human Rights, Legislation, Media by Erineus on February 27, 2009

No democratic country in the world has ever passed legislation that requires the media to provide equal space and time to the replies of citizens offended by news stories.

The members of Congress have taken the lead of reinventing Philippine democracy by initiating legislation that claims to expand freedom of the press while pretending to ensure fairness to citizens who are victims of some news reports or commentaries. Their initiative takes the form of Senate Bill 2150, and House Bill 3306. Both would require the media to publish or broadcast the reply of a party offended by a news story on the same space and with the same prominence as the offending report.

This provision is at the heart of the controversy over the right of reply bill. In practice, it is offensive to the freedom of the press and leads to its curtailment.

On closer examination, the bill amounts to a legislated censorship as pernicious as the muzzling of the press by totalitarian dictatorships. In effect, the bill constitutes prior restraint on the exercise of that freedom by editors in the selection of stories they publish or broadcast.

I am arguing from the operational effects of the bill on the media, not from the legal point of view of its constitutionality. In that context, strong arguments can be mounted against the legislation.

I am referring to the 1974 decision of US Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger who said the choice of material to go into a newspaper, the decision as to the size and content of the paper, and on the treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. Concurring with the majority opinion, Justice Byron Raymond White emphatically held that a newspaper or magazine is not a public utility subject to “reasonable” government regulation on matters affecting the exercise of editorial judgment as to what shall be printed. He said that prior compulsion by government in matters going to the very nerve center of a newspaper — the decision of what copy will or will not be included in a given edition — collides with the freedom of the press clause of the (US) constitution.

US jurisprudence on freedom of the press has been a model and inspiration of Philippine Supreme Court decisions on the issue. From the vantage of the purely operational consequences of the legislated right of reply, I can see the havoc it would wreak on the media industry. We are facing a possible nightmare of disruptions in media operations.

First, let us examine who can, under the bill, compel the media to publish their replies. These are parties “criticized by innuendo, suggestion, or rumor for any lapse in behavior in private or public life.” This provision unlocks the dikes to a flood of demands, converting the media into dumping grounds for all sorts of complaints arising from reports they have published or aired.

The bill appropriates, through legislative fiat, premium newspaper space to these demands for publication of replies on the same spot and same length as the offending story. This requirement is worse than Pravda’s during Stalin’s times. It restricts the media’s choice of stories to use. It prevents editors from touching space pre-allocated to replies. It encroaches on their editorial judgments and independence, which are essential to a free press. It ignores the quality of the stories and gives equal weight to stories regardless of whether they have substance or are full of nonsense. This puts in the same category idiotic and intelligent stories, a parity that does not ensure fairness to offended parties.

The front page of a newspaper is so designed that it reflects the view of the world, as evaluated by editors trained to assess important news. The notion of pre-allocated space, mandated by legislation, distorts social and political reality unfolded by dynamic events. It replaces this empirical reality with an artificial construct built on replies of offended citizens to negative stories.

It would be hard for editors to put out newspapers with these restrictions on choice and placement of stories. They don’t have all the space to accommodate such replies, which tend to create their own cycles of endless replies. One reply leads to another reply, a process which makes it hard to accept Sen. Aquilino Pimentel’s claim that his bill could expand freedom of the press. Freedom to publish of nonsense would be a better word for it.

The most obvious beneficiaries of the bill are the politicians, especially legislators, who can use the right of reply to settle scores with their political adversaries and critics and to protect and promote their own private interests. They are bound to become the foremost users of the right.

Among the members of the political class, legislators, with their privilege speeches, are ahead of other public officials in using newspaper and broadcast space. They need the right of reply more than businessmen, military men, bishops, civil society activists and bureaucrats. This is why Pimentel cannot claim his bill will expand press freedom.

Impressionistic evidence indicates that the privilege speech and parliamentary statements made under cover of legislative immunity are often the source of demands for the right of reply. Private citizens slandered and attacked by privilege speeches seldom seek redress in the media, because it does not help them. They have no use for the Pimentel bill. Reply in the media to privilege speeches can only invite swift retaliation from legislators shielded by parliamentary immunity.

Thus, the right of reply bill is another bludgeon legislators can use to reinforce their parliamentary immunity.

By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:34:00 02/27/2009

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20090227-191266/Insidious-censorship

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