The right to edit
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. challenged his “friends in the media” to offer him a “reasoned argument” against his right of reply bill, which has passed third reading in the Senate. We are not sure if the burden of proof, so to speak, falls on the media; Pimentel’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr., for example, gives us all the proof we need that, in the wrong hands, a right to reply law does pose a grave danger to our civil liberties.
Pimentel offers a much more solid argument for a right of reply law, as an expansion of the freedom of the press. As a lawyer, however, Pimentel knows that God (or the devil, depending on which quotation one prefers) is in the details.
And the details are revealing indeed. No distinction between news and opinion (thus killing, in one swoop, the entire tradition of fair comment). No consideration of the cost of reply (thus weighing down news organizations, very few of which actually turn a profit, with an onerous financial burden). And no regard for industry discipline (thus ignoring, sweepingly, decades of practice at self-regulation).
The core of the issue, however, is this: What we have in the right of reply bill (as formulated in Senate Bill 2150, for example) is the right to edit.
Readers scan a newspaper regularly, viewers tune in to a newscast daily, listeners turn to the radio news broadcast hourly, in part because they trust the editors and directors and producers — in short, the news managers — who do the job. The same pattern of trust can be discerned in the emerging media: The most popular websites and the most influential blogs have distinct personalities (in the case of blogs, quite literally).
To choose an example near to Pimentel’s heart: Let us say that in the not-too-distant future, a practiced attention-getter decides that the martial-law era did not in fact happen; that the arrests of Benigno Aquino and Jose Diokno and countless others (including, yes, Pimentel) did not in fact take place; that oppositionists were not in fact tortured and dissidents were not in fact killed. An impossible proposition? Not at all — as the cautionary growth of the Holocaust-denial industry, despite the universe of evidence, should warn us.
Under a right of reply regime, no good deed goes unpunished. Any criticism of a martial-law denier must be paid back in full, with the denier enjoying equal treatment. Even if a newspaper or a TV network or a radio station had already painstakingly shown, perhaps through a comprehensive special report, that martial law did in fact happen and many thousands were in fact left victimized, each news organization would be obliged, under penalty of law, to grant the denier space or airtime equal to the criticism, each time his patent nonsense is criticized.
Does anyone think this is an ideal state of affairs?
News managers — editors, news directors, executive producers — have the duty to judge what is newsworthy. That is part of the unwritten contract readers and viewers and listeners and users enter into. Under a right-of-reply regime, however, a news manager’s duty to spare her audience from the insanity of a martial-law denier is undermined. Indeed, in complying with the strictures of such a law, she will be compelled to propagate the very nonsense she ought to protect her audience from.
Is this an isolated, unlikely case? Not at all — as the shameless growth of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s double-speak factory, despite or perhaps because of its lack of credibility, should tell us.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita wants us to believe that President Arroyo did not snub the EDSA People Power I anniversary rites last Wednesday; she merely had a full schedule. We have the duty to report this statement, of course; on paper it does not look as insane as it sounds. But did no one in Malacañang realize that the anniversary always falls on February 25? It is our bounden duty to point out the inconsistency in Malacañang’s statement, the political savvy behind Malacañang’s use of holidays to mark anniversaries or holidays it welcomes — and thus the hypocrisy in Malacañang’s position on EDSA People Power.
Under a right of reply regime, the media’s constitutionally protected responsibility to sift information from misinformation falls victim to the most flattering form of insincerity: mere lip service.