Wake Up, Philippines!

The right to reply

Posted in Congress, Constitutional Rights, Legislation, Media by Erineus on March 11, 2009

By Isagani A. Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:20:00 03/08/2009

WHEN a senator or representative delivers a libelous accusation against another person, he incurs no liability because of his parliamentary immunity for any speech or debate within the halls of Congress. The usual recourse of the supposed victim is to challenge his detractor to repeat his charges outside the legislature so they can be litigated before a court of justice.

If the solon does not respond, the public will conclude that his charges are true except that he does not have the evidence to prove them. That is in fact the reason for his parliamentary immunity. But if he decides to accept his target’s demand, he then allows himself, at his own risk, to be subject to judicial action. If he is unable to prove his accusations, he will then be liable for civil damages or imprisonment and/or fine; otherwise, he will have established the truth of his remarks.

Sen. Claro M. Recto successfully employed this device to remove a high government official during the administration of President Elpidio Quirino. Not that it would have done him any good, but that person did not have the facility offered by the right to reply bill recently passed by the Senate. President Macapagal-Arroyo has already threatened to veto it although it has not yet even been approved by Congress.

Under this bill, any person attacked by the media, through the press, television or radio, is given the right to reply, in the same medium and with equal prominence, to deny or explain his side. The purpose is to enable him to refute the effects of the accusation upon his name, good or bad. The trouble is that this opportunity would normally be barred at the present time, given the power of the press over easily cowed judges and the expenses and other inconveniences of litigation.

The result, it is argued, would leave the accusation unpunished and the reputation of the innocent subject tarnished for lack of denial or explanation. In many cases, the barrel of the gun is the final answer against the accusing journalist, who is presumed by the bill as biased and with an evil motive when in fact his only purpose was to expose the wrong and reveal the truth.

In my view, the presumption of the bill is that all adverse criticism of any person, especially public officials who are often the object of journalistic attacks, is per se untrue and motivated by evil designs. This is unfair. It debases freedom of expression itself that Justice Sutherland described as “one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.”

The bill dishonors the great writers who came to be known during the French Revolution as the Fourth Estate for their powerful influence in opposing the decadent aristocracy. It is an insult to our own freedom of expression that sustained our struggles to be free with the fiery words of Rizal, Plaridel, Lopez Jaena, Jacinto, Mabini and other heroes of our race. They did not need a right to reply bill to moderate their courage against the foreign invaders.

It is true that there are so-called journalists in this noble profession who would pollute it with their tabloid career of blackmail and extortion. But they constitute only a small percentage of its worthy membership. The great majority of its practitioners are dedicated to the pursuit of truth as their only goal even at the risk of their safety and the cost of their lives. Their accusations serve as a useful warning to the public against the persons they criticize and their suspiciously illicit operations.

The press should be given its full measure of encouragement and freedom in the dissemination of “matters that touch the heart of the existing order.” If vital news is suppressed to accommodate a senseless defense from the offended party, this will intrude not only upon the media’s editorial policies but also on their property rights to the space they have to reserve for the required statutory reply. This may placate the private person’s ego but not the general public that paid for but will not receive the needed but excluded information.

There should always be a proper balance between private rights and the public interest. It is true that under the Bill of Rights, the lone individual should be regarded as a majority of one against the entire, united nation. But in the case before us, it is hard to sustain this questionable right against freedom of expression—“at once the instrument and the guaranty and the bright consummate flower of all liberty”—as a correct exercise of the police power of the State.

Fortunately, the proposal is still only a bill and has yet to be debated in the House of Representatives where it is likely to be scrutinized and rejected if only because it is the approved act of its traditional rival and frequent antagonist. Even if the measure should also pass there, there is still the final deliberation of the conference committee on the still unresolved differences between the two chambers that may yet kill the controversial measure.

And, yes, even if the bill should reach Malacañang, remember that President Arroyo has already announced she would veto it. The only hitch is that she also promised in 2003 that she would not run in the 2004 presidential election but did.

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20090308-192922/The-right-to-reply

Other issues in ‘right of reply’

Posted in Legislation, Media by Erineus on March 11, 2009

FROM A DISTANCE By Carmen N. Pedrosa Updated March 08, 2009 12:00 AM

All the talk on the right of reply is focused on its “attack on freedom of the press”. At first glance, it seems a conflict between politicians and journalists. But dig deeper, and you will find other issues. It is not black and white but with many colors.

Something is amiss. Just as important, if not more important, are different players like poorly paid journalists (one of the lowest in the region), the owners of the media (media oligarchs) in which they write and broadcast, and politicians aspiring for power and just as avaricious. It looks more like a mélange of interests elbowing for advantage.

They tell the same story of how democracy operates on the ground. It is certainly not black or white. Neither is it between freedom vs. responsibility of the press. It is my opinion that the debate on right of reply goes beyond all this. There are factors that may not be obvious to the naked eye or to the conformist mind but are as relevant, if not more relevant than the issue of freedom vs. responsibility of the press that others make it out to be.

Did the leaders of Congress have any choice but to back down from further discussing and approving the Right of Reply bill? If they did not they might have to swallow more than they bargained for. Better to stay on the side of “the prudence of conformity” than face the substantial problem at stake. It’s a cop-out.

* * *

Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia announced to media that the RORB has been overtaken by events. What events? “Congressmen don’t want to touch it, it’s now frozen.” See what I mean? There will be no plenary in the House even if the Senate has already approved the bill. By all means consult with media groups, that’s part of the democratic debate.

On the other hand Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., the bill’s principal author, says he’s open to compromise to make it more acceptable to media. “It’s balancing the freedom of the press with the right of the people to defend themselves,” he said.

As for journalists carrying their protests in the streets. (Ok din yon! ) Whenever I have a chance I tell colleagues that in a trip to South Korea I asked journalists how much they were paid. I was told that their pay follows the rate in other industries. Maybe that is where members of media can focus their efforts — that they get better paid commensurate to their ability and the risks they take.

This perspective will reveal another player in this conflict of interests that has remain unscathed despite the damage it has caused to our country’s nation-building. That player is called big business with the money and clout to use media to advance or protect their interests.

Flawed media in the Philippines has not gone unnoticed by other countries in the region. Moreover irresponsible media, unlike corruption in government has escaped blame precisely because freedom of the press is invoked whenever it is called into question.

Yet few will deny that the same freedom of the press can be a licentious corporate tool and one of the reasons why the Philippines is unable to match the progress in other countries in the region. “Freedom of the press” covers a multitude of sins, one of them is how it has brought about a weak state in the Philippines.

Media oligarchs use “freedom of the press” to block reforms or worse attempt to bring down governments if these go against their interests. Big businesses look to owning a newspaper, radio or television as an advantage over their competitors.

I have often been asked by colleagues in other countries in the region why media in the Philippines is “too involved” in high level politics at the expense of community issues more relevant to the reading public.

* * *

Admittedly it is not just about ownership of media that often distorts responsible reporting. Deadlines and space restrictions, ideology, balance and impartiality, PR agencies — all interweave in media play in the Philippines. Guardians of the freedom of the press are loathe to admit that often the independent journalist has to maneuver through this shoals of difficulties just to be able to be published. Neither is the Philippines the only country with problems on the ownership of media.

It is true the world over that corporations rule over media. While there are intrepid investigative journalists, they are often limited to mega deals and profits that do not affect their owners.

The problem with flawed media is it restricts critical thinking. And it can be just as partisan as the politicians they deride.

Journalists like to think they have a sense of mission but are stopped by what a wise analyst called “relentless tabloidization”, meaning to give only the kind of journalism that sells.

As for time and space, some newsrooms are filled with young, inexperienced journalists without backgrounds on the articles they write, with no time to read yet to obliged to multitask and meet merciless deadlines. They work 12 or 14 hours a day for meager salaries. Do you wonder why the envelope is hard to refuse even with the best of intentions?

I remember that while on exile in London, I read about a unique newspaper that did not oblige their correspondents to send stories every day. They had to absorb the essence of the society of the country in which they were assigned, live it and know the people that inhabit it. That way when a newsworthy event breaks out, they will report accurately and wisely.

As to balance and impartiality these have been thrown out of the window. For example, the reading public has come to accept it is difficult to find media reports on anything good about the Arroyo administration. It has long been demonized and therefore cannot do good and this with the help of surveys calculated to promote hatred against it. All this, and the campaign for 2010 has not even formally begun.

http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=446547&publicationSubCategoryId=64

The right to edit

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

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.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:26:00 02/27/2009

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/editorial/view/20090227-191261/The-right-to-edit