MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang on Tuesday criticized as “unfair” a report from a New York-based media watchdog listing the Philippines as among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists due to many unresolved murders since 1998.
At least 24 killings of Filipino journalists have remained unresolved since 1998, said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ called on the government to prosecute and punish those behind the murders.
In its latest “Impunity Index” report, the CPJ ranked the Philippines No. 6 in a list of 14 countries with high numbers of unresolved killings of journalists against the size of the population.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said it was not true the government had ignored these killings in the country, saying 26 of 31 cases were now either being tried in lower courts or under prosecutors’ review.
“We view with discomfort the manner the Philippines is once again put in a bad light on its commitment on the promotion and protection of human rights,” Ermita told reporters.
“The allegation by the CPJ is an unfair depiction of what is happening based on measures that are inadequate. These incidents have all been properly attended to.”
No quick convictions
The retired military general said at least four people had been convicted and 26 others were facing charges for the murder of at least 31 Filipino journalists since 2001.
“The low conviction rate has been misconstrued as a slack in the country’s justice system. This is a misconception because we always conform to the rule of law. The government will not force quick convictions simply for the sake of announcing achievements,” Ermita said.
The CPJ said it was standing firm on its “impunity index” because the data-based report “belies the claim of an exaggeration.”
RP peacetime democracy
“What is striking is that the Philippines is one of the only countries in the top half of this list that is a stable and a peacetime democracy,” the CPJ said.
Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sri Lanka remained at the top of the list, but these states are virtually in a state of war, the CPJ added.
Local media groups said about 78 to 100 of more than 130 journalists killed since 1986 died while doing their job. Only five of those cases led to the conviction of gunmen—but not to any alleged mastermind.
In a statement Tuesday, a mission from the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) that visited the country on March 21-24 expressed fears that the killings of media people in the Philippines could spread to other countries in the region.
“We believe that the culture of impunity that is deeply rooted in the Philippines could be replicated in other countries in the region unless there is a common effort to dismantle it in the Philippines,” the group said.
SEAPA noted an increase in violence against journalists and media workers in Malaysia and Thailand last year. This includes harassment, mob attacks on journalists and media premises, killings and legal sanctions to suppress free expression.
The alliance also feared an escalation of the killings of media people in the Philippines as the 2010 election nears.
SEAPA called on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo “to take the steps necessary to prevent that unfortunate development.” With reports from Alcuin Papa and Reuters
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.
It appears that Congress is dead set on passing the right of reply bill. The Senate, voting 21 to 0, has passed the bill that will require media companies to provide equal space or air time to persons who are the subjects of their negative reports. Now, Speaker Prospero Nograles says the House of Representatives is “under pressure” to approve the measure.
The measure would give individuals who are “criticized by innuendo, suggestion or rumor of any lapse in behavior in private and public life the right to reply to charges or criticisms in newspapers, magazines, newsletters, radio, television and websites.”
At the outset, we must state we are in favor of everyone exercising their right of reply. It is part of the freedom of expression guaranteed to every individual by the Constitution. What we are against is a statutory right of reply.
We are against the right of reply bill because it would violate the right of journalists under the freedom of the press clause of the Constitution to edit or determine the contents of their publication. It would intrude into the function of editors. Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger of the US Supreme Court, in the 1974 case of Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, said the choice of material to go into a newspaper, the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and the treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment.
Justice Byron Raymond White, concurring in the Burger majority opinion, said that a newspaper or magazine is not a public utility subject to “reasonable” government regulation in matters affecting the exercise of journalistic 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 Constitution.
The right of reply bill would mandate that the replies be “published or broadcast in the same space of the newspapers, magazine, newsletter or publication, or aired over the same program on radio, television, website, or through any electronic device.” So, if the news story to which the reply is being made is the banner or No. 1 story in today’s issue, the reply should also be the banner story in tomorrow’s issue, although there may be bigger, fresher, more significant news that merits banner-story treatment.
A statutory right of reply would have a chilling effect on free speech. It would discourage newspapers, TV and radio stations from commenting on controversial issues when they know that they must provide free space and free air time for all replies.
A statutory right of reply in effect would impose a penalty on the basis of the contents of a newspaper. The first phase of the penalty resulting from the compelled printing of a reply is exerted in terms of the cost in printing and composing. It will take away space that could be devoted to other material that the newspaper may have preferred to print.
There are already measures and venues available to persons who want to exercise their right of reply: They can write letters for publication in the Letters to the Editor section. If a major factual inaccuracy is involved, the letter or article could be published on Page 1. They can write letter-complaints to the readers’ advocate, publisher, editor in chief or vice president for news and current affairs of the newspaper or radio or TV station concerned. They can address their complaint to the Philippine Press Council. Or they can file libel suits.
Burger said that a statutory right of reply imposes the virtue of responsibility on the media. He said, “…Press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated.”
Most of the major newspapers, radio and TV stations have manuals of editorial policies that include provisions on the right of reply and on accuracy, objectivity and fairness. We urge the authors of the right of reply bill to withdraw it. Responsibility cannot be legislated. Government officials, politicians and the people in general will just have to trust in the responsibility, ethical uprightness and sense of fairness of publishers, editors and reporters in doing their work and exercising journalistic judgment and discretion.
The Philippines has made it to this year’s “Guinness Book of World Records” for having the most number of recorded murders based on United Nations data in 2004, an election year.
Sen. Richard Gordon revealed yesterday the country’s inclusion in the widely published records list and expressed concern that it might further tarnish the country’s image.
“We should shudder at this world record because it shows that the best legacy our generation will leave behind is our reputation for succeeding at killing people rather than making our country safe,” Gordon said in a statement.
The Guinness record was based on 2004 United Nations data that placed recorded killings in the country at 3,515. Full Story