Wake Up, Philippines!

Right to reply: legislative blackmail

Posted in Congress, Constitutional Rights, Legislation, Media, Right To Information by Erineus on March 6, 2009

By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:45:00 03/05/2009

The Right of Reply Bill seeks to enhance the access to the mass media of the people “who feel aggrieved by stories or commentaries which may be biased, inaccurate, and unfair to them,” according to its sponsors.

In his sponsorship speech, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the bill was drafted “in response to the frequent complaints of people who are the subjects of defamatory articles over the refusal or failure of newspapers or broadcast networks to present their side.”

“If the press has the right to offend or to mortify, the people should have the right to reply,” Pimentel said, emphasizing that the freedom of the press “is not the monopoly of members of the press.”

When Pimentel speaks of expanding the right to reply to “the people” who are offended by media reports, we have to ask, who are the people who are mortified and offended by these reports? Clearly, from verifiable evidence, Pimentel appears to be referring to a tiny segment of the people—the political elite, to which he belongs — who are mortified by media reports holding the power-holders accountable for their official acts and abuses in public office.

The right of reply bill seeks to protect a certain group of politically privileged citizens from media reports that expose abuses and corruption of officials. The poor, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged have no reason to complain or to clamor for the right to reply against newspaper reports simply because they have never been the targets or victims of media attacks. The media have historically and traditionally been on the side of the underdogs, who are abused and oppressed by power holders (including legislators, executive officials, police, security forces, bureaucrats). Unlike the power-holders and functionaries with public authority, the media have not bullied and trampled underfoot the underdogs of society. These are the groups which, according to the creed of President Ramon Magsaysay, have less in life and should have more in law.

The politically and socially disadvantaged comprise the majority of the population. They cannot see the relevance of these bills to the exercise of their freedom of speech, especially to join protests against corruption of the elites and the violence of security authorities in suppressing these protests. They cannot understand the concerns of the political elites, such as Pimentel and Rep. Monico Puentevella and those who have endorsed their bills, over media reports exposing abuses of power.

Consequently, there is no way Pimentel’s Senate Bill 2150 and Puentevella’s House Bill 3306 can benefit the underdogs — the victims of abuses of power by the elites. These bills are irrelevant to the underdogs because they have no use for this legislation. These bills are elitist and anti-poor in the sense that they would muzzle the media from denouncing the abuses and corruption of the political elites and curtail the right and responsibility of the media to expose wrongdoing in public office.

Pimentel is making false claims when he says that his bill extends the right of reply to “the people.” In reality, he is referring to a narrow segment of the people, who are already enjoying the legislative privilege of immunity from which the rest of “the people” are excluded. The bill expands the elite’s platform to attack private citizens and groups, as it curtails the freedom of editors to determine the stories they publish or broadcast. The bills grab space from private media to accommodate replies of offended persons, mostly legislators and other power holders, reacting to media attacks centered on public issues.

The political elites have closed ranks behind these bills to gang up on the media. This is a bad sign. The Senate, which is not always a bulwark of press freedom despite senators’ claim to be champions of civil liberties, has passed Senate Bill 2150 in a disgraceful 21-0 vote. The House of Representatives is reported to be sending back House Bill 3306 to the committee on information for review and amendments after further dialogue with media representatives. These steps, claimed to be in observance of “democratic process” in legislation, do not alter the fact that the media face an uphill struggle in getting Congress to kill the legislation. Legislators have warned the media against taking a hardline position, which is that the media cannot compromise their constitutionally-protected freedom to publish stories unfettered by legislated prior-restraint censorship. Indeed, despite all these appearances of a developing compromise, the conflict has hit an impasse.

It does not bode well for a resolution that the chair of the House committee on information, Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. has issued a veiled threat that journalists faced dire violent consequences if the media insisted in blocking the right of reply bill. “If you can’t ventilate in writing,” Abante said, “what will a person do but assassinate the journalist? If we include this [provision], it might drastically reduce such incidents.” He was referring to the scores of journalists killed during the past few years.

This is a false assumption. This statement is no different from the Mafia warning that if you interfered in the bootleg racket you would be riddled with submachine-gun bullets.

Unfortunately, many congressmen share this view. They are attracted to a solution that offers facile explanation to the orgy of assassinations of provincial journalists who attacked local officials for wrongdoing. The publication of replies could not have averted the assassinations. The reasons for the killings are complex.

This orgy of killings cannot be stopped by legislative blackmail on the right of reply bill.

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20090305-192554/Right-to-reply-legislative-blackmail

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Vetoing openness

Posted in Budget, Constitutional Rights, Editorial, Right To Information, Tax by Erineus on February 1, 2009

In the 2007 budget law, a right-to-information provision was vetoed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. (In 2008, the provision did not even find its way into the budget law.) In the P1.4-trillion General Appropriations Act of 2009 that the President is about to sign, the provision is back. Will the President veto it again?

Sen. Francis Pangilinan is right to sound the alarm. “Mindless of the numerous corruption scandals that rocked the nation last year, the Office of the President once again did not include the Right to Information section in its proposed 2009 P1.4-trillion budget. It is not clear whether this was devious desire or just an oversight,” he noted in a press statement. He said a people’s organization, Alyansa Agrikultura, had alerted him to it.

What does the section say?

“Right to Information. Subject to limitations as may be provided by law, the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, guaranteed under Section 7, Article III of the Constitution as well as with the state policy of full disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest, every government agency shall, upon request by any citizen, make available the data under their possession for information, scrutiny, copying, or reproduction of all records of information, in any form whatsoever, pertaining to the implementation of the appropriations under this Act including but not limited to information on projects, disbursement of funds, reports, contract bidding and awards.”

This is a tonic provision that can help restore public confidence in the political process. It is also, after the passed budget was amended to accommodate a P50-billion “economic stimulus package,” a necessary one. Requiring “every government agency” to “make available the data” a citizen may request “pertaining to the implementation of the appropriations under this Act” will help counter inordinate greed in government spending – or at least supply concerned citizens with the legal ammunition to fight corruption.

But President Arroyo vetoed a similar provision in the 2007 budget. She did not include the provision in the 2009 bill. Now that it has been inserted into the budget and actually passed, will she veto it again? We can think of only one reason she would do so: to protect the corrupt.

* * *

Denying transparency

The use of bicameral conference committees to forge a legislative measure acceptable to both the House and the Senate is a longstanding practice – and one that, as we and others have pointed out more than once, is prone to abuse. It has, all too often, given rise to the so-called third chamber of Congress, a shadow (and shadowy) branch of government. The way the “bicam” on the 2009 budget has conducted its business, however, occasions deeper worry; the concentration of power that we know is unhealthy for democracy has become even more acute.

The substance of the “economic stimulus package” that is a feature of the 2009 budget as finally approved is crucial, of course. A pro-administration congressman said of the P50-billion package: “This could be construed as a way to bankroll the political ambitions of some people.” Or the political interests of the administration.

But it is the way the administration engineered the passage of the budget that is gravely troubling.

Members of the bicameral conference committee had authorized Rep. Junie Cua, the chairman of the House appropriations committee, and Sen. Edgardo Angara, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, to meet over the holidays to thresh out the differences between the respective bills. The members were wrong to do this: to concentrate the power of the purse in only two pairs of hands.

But Cua and Angara did meet; they did the work of reconciling provisions and amending the budget – and they did not bother to report to their members afterwards.

“I cannot recall any similar occurrence in the past when this has happened,” House Deputy Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora said. Oh, the bicam did meet, after the changes had been fixed. But only for 15 minutes. “This is farcical,” Zamora said.

That much is transparent.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:23:00 01/29/2009