POSTSCRIPT / February 26, 2009 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

Share This

GMA could play hero, veto 'Right to Reply' bill

HEROINE: Wittingly or unwittingly, the senators and congressmen pushing the “Right-to-Reply” bills could be setting the stage for President Gloria Arroyo to play hero by vetoing the ridiculous measure when passed by Congress.

Senators who had voted for SB 2150, notably its sponsor Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, might just end up watching Ms Arroyo steal the thunder by undoing with a stroke of the pen the vengeful efforts of lawmakers to harass the critical press.

A presidential veto could jolt the Senate, which has approved its counterpart bill, but there could just be knowing smiles in the House crawling with Arroyo followers.

The measure that would water down press freedom and make life miserable for the Fourth Estate is listed in the House as HB 3306. Authored by Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella, it is set for approval on third and final reading.

*      *      *

NIGHTMARE: The “Right to Reply” bills would require media to publish or broadcast in the same space or time slot, and with equal prominence, the “side” of any person who feels slighted by a news report, column item or radio-TV show.

This crude attempt to force physical balance in media presentation will not work. The legislators pushing the idea are sorely ignorant of how mass media work.

To legislate artificial balance — an operational and logistical nightmare — will drive the Fourth Estate to penury and extinction.

*      *      *

VETO SEEN: A foreshadowing of a veto was a remark yesterday of Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, doubling as presidential spokesman, that “we must guard with much zealousness freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

“It will be well for our lawmakers to understand that this is the very essence of democracy,” he said. “The caveat is to be sure it will not be an infringement on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

There have been scattered critical comments in media against the “Right-to-Reply” measures, but it was only this week when bicameral approval looked imminent that the media exploded in loud protest.

*      *      *

PLARIDEL SPEAKS: Among the groups that have spoken against the “Right-to-Reply” bills is Plaridel, an organization of senior and seasoned print and broadcast journalists. It said among other things:

“This week we mark the 23rd anniversary of the end of Martial Law, a milestone in our history that will be remembered for the rebirth of Philippine democracy and the revitalization of our people’s most basic rights, like the right to expression and the freedom of the press.

“However, it appears that we in the media have very little to celebrate, as the rights we regained 23 years ago are being eroded by misguided legislation that, according to its authors, seek to expand ‘the right of free speech,’ ironically, at the expense of the freedoms guaranteed to the media by our Constitution.

“The bills we refer to are House Bill 3306, authored by Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella, and Senate Bill 2150 authored by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, collectively referred to as the ‘Right to Reply’ bills. These measures seek to provide ‘the right to reply to the charges published or printed in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or publications circulated commercially’ and ‘to criticisms aired or broadcast over radio, television, websites, or through any electronic device free of charge in the same space of the newspapers, magazine, newsletter or publication or aired over the same program on radio, television, website, or any electronic device concerned.’

“These measures, its supporters argue, ‘seek to level the playing field in journalism.’ They do not. What a ‘Right to Reply’ bill does is allow individuals — particularly powerful officials often at the receiving ends of our stories — to encroach on the most basic precept of press freedom: that of allowing us to exercise editorial control and judgment over what is printed in our pages or broadcast in our airwaves.

“We submit that this right is not absolute, which is the rationale behind the existence of libel laws that provide maligned individuals with the means to seek redress in our courts should they be wrongfully or maliciously attacked by the media. Unlike the ‘Right to Reply’ bills, however, existing laws accord those sued for libel due process, with the courts determining whether a libel suit is meritorious or not. Such is not the case in these ‘Right to Reply’ bills, wherein media must allot space for aggrieved parties regardless of the facts surrounding the issues raised — or risk being fined.

“Responsible journalism dictates that the media tell all sides of a story. The letter to the editor section of our broadsheets is peppered everyday with the statements of those wanting to express their sentiments regarding the stories concerning them; rarely do we see news programs interview only one party in any dispute. Legislation to compel journalists to do their jobs properly is not only unnecessary, but also dangerous.

“The freedom of the press is a right we obtained 23 years ago after many members of the media risked life and limb to report the evils of a totalitarian regime bent on suppressing our rights. Today, that regime is long gone, but the threats against our freedoms remain. The ‘Right to Reply’ bills represent such a threat, and as we did 23 years before, we pledge to continue fighting for our right to tell the truth. We call on our responsible members of Congress to withdraw their support for this measure to ensure that the media can continue to fulfill its role — that of reporting the news without fear or favor.”

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 26, 2009)

Share your thoughts.

Your email address will not be published.