“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”—Heinrich Heine
BOOK burning has a long and dark history. According to Holocaust Encyclopedia, book burning refers to the “ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials.” Usually done in public, the burning of books “represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question.”
One of the most famous of these events, the encyclopedia points out, is the burning of books under the Nazi regime. On May 10, 1933, university students in Germany burned up to 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books at Berlin’s Opernplatz. The bonfire was a “symbolic act of ominous significance … presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture.”
Prodded by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, in an action to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals (including anti-Semitism and the superiority of the Aryan race), right-wing students threw onto the bonfire the “unwanted” books with great ceremony, band playing and “fire-oaths.”
On April 6, 1933, according to the encyclopedia, the Nazi German Student Association’s press and propaganda office proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with blacklists of “un-German” authors.
Among the authors whose books the students burned on May 19 were well-known socialists such as Bertolt Brecht and August Bebel; Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writers like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler; and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway. Also torched were the writings of the 1929 Nobel Prize-winning German author, Thomas Mann, whose support of the Weimar Republic and critique of fascism raised Nazi ire, and the works of best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque, whose anti-war novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Nazi ideologues had vilified as “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War.”
Other writers on the blacklists included American authors Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Helen Keller, whose belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled, pacifism, improved conditions for industrial workers and women’s voting rights. Also burned were the writings of the 19th-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820-1821 play, Almansor, the admonition: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Almansor referred to the burning of the Qur’an during the Spanish Inquisition.
Wikipedia points out that some particular cases of book burning are traumatically remembered, “because the books destroyed were irreplaceable and their loss constituted a severe damage to cultural heritage, and/or because this instance of book burning has become emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime.”
Such were the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty. The chronology of book-burning is long. It has been pointed out that torching books has a long history “as a tool wielded by authorities both secular and religious, in efforts to suppress dissenting or heretical views that are perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order.”
It need not be belabored that, according to scholars, “when books are ordered collected by authorities and disposed of in private, it may not be book burning, strictly speaking—but the destruction of cultural and intellectual heritage is the same.”
According to the scholar Elaine Pagels, in AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria … issued an Easter Letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writing, except for those specifically listed as “acceptable.” The chronology of book-burning incidents includes the destruction of the House of Wisdom during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, along with all other libraries in Baghdad. According to legend, the waters of the Tigris “ran black for six months with ink from enormous quantities of books flung into the river.” Books have been attacked and have suffered at the hands of regimes or religious authorities in many climes and regions, and for various motivations.
In Orwell’s “1984,” Wikipedia points out, “the euphemistically-called ‘memory hole’ is used to burn any book or written text which is inconvenient to the regime.”
Closer to home, it has been pointed out that “the advent of the digital age has resulted in an immense collection of written work being catalogued exclusively or primarily in digital form. The intentional deletion or removal of these works has been often referred to as a new form of book burning. This reference is more closely related to the relationship between book burning and censorship than the systematic and categorical elimination of a particular body of literary work. In general, book burning does not refer to individual censorship, but rather to an act of mass censorship”—at the hands of a bureaucratic thought police. We will examine this issue in the next column.
MANILA, Philippines — The controversial right of reply bill pending could be an “undue intrusion” into the rights of media, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairperson Leila de Lima said on Thursday.
Instead of passing a bill that would require media outfits to publish the reply of parties offended by reports or commentaries, lawmakers said the media should be allowed to “self regulate.”
“I always believe that it should be self-regulation by media, no legislation is needed. Self-regulation is the best tack,” De Lima said at a press conference in Camp Crame.
But De Lima refused to provide more details of the CHR’s stand on the issue, saying they will be releasing an official statement on the matter soon.
Media organizations and outfits on Monday launched a campaign against the passage of the bill, calling it an “act of terrorism against the media” and a violation of the Constitution.
The Senate passed its version of the measure, principally authored by Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., last year, while House Bill 3306 filed by Bacolod Representative Monico Puentevella is pending in the lower chamber.
Both bills seek to require that media publish or air the reply of a party offended by a news story in the same space and with the same prominence as the offending story and carry sanction, including hefty fines and, in the House version, jail time, for those who fail to comply.
For his part, Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Jesus Verzosa said they respect the code of ethics practiced by the media.
“But also we must have to consider also the wisdom that is being forwarded by our legislators as to why they came up with that proposed bill for the right of reply, so we will wait for the outcome of the processing of the proposed bill of the right of reply,” he said.
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.
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.