POSTSCRIPT / March 3, 2009 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Politicos may want to take up Journ 101

HITTING BACK: Still on the “Right to Reply” bill that would force media to publish or broadcast with equal prominence the reaction of all persons claiming to have been slighted by media reports and commentaries:

If Person A punched Person B without provocation and “B” hit back with reasonable force and was sued by “A,” the judge normally would acquit “B” for acting in self-defense. Victim “B” may even be awarded damages.

Recognition of self-defense is well and good. But still, no “Right to Hit Back” has been legislated ordering aggressor “A” to drop his guard and allow victim “B” to hit him with equal force in the corresponding spot in his body where “B” was hit.

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LEGISLATING BALANCE: There is no need to legislate a “Right to Reply” for persons who complain of having been “hit” by media and demand to be allowed to respond in the same space/time with equal prominence.

Actually, without having to invoke a non-existent “Right to Reply,” anybody mentioned in media — whether favorably or unfavorably — is free to react. Media normally run such feedback to the extent that limited space and time would allow it.

This is where the controversial “Right to Reply” bill comes in with a proposition that is unnecessary, impractical and legally objectionable.

The measure dictates to the supposedly free press how to publish or broadcast feedback. It commands that reactions be used with equal prominence in the same space or time slot where the report being answered came out.

Legislating physical balance in media will not work, as we explained in previous Postscripts. Imagine the confusion and clutter, not to mention the expense! Such imposition is also of doubtful constitutionality as it abridges freedom of the press.

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INDUSTRY STANDARDS: It should be stressed that as a matter of long-standing policy and practice, legitimate media have always recognized the need for fairness and balance.

No legislation is needed to tell them that, because media themselves know not only their duty but also the fact that they cannot survive in a very competitive information market if they are not balanced, fair and honest.

Those who are not satisfied with the feedback/grievance mechanism of the industry have recourse in law. And then, if existing laws are deemed inadequate, they can always be amended.

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LAW ON LIBEL: Any person feeling aggrieved has ample opportunity to protect his name and honor. For instance, he can sue under the revised penal code, particularly its chapter on libel.

For reference, Article 353 of the Code defines libel as a “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

If all the elements of libel in that definition are present, the aggrieved party has a good case without having to invoke a so-called “Right to Reply.”

Instead of insisting on this ridiculous “Right to Reply” stand-alone bill, its proponents may want to cool down and just move to amend the law on libel.

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BALANCE: I have to touch, even if only briefly, on “balance” in mass media, because the bill’s proponents talk about it ad nauseam.

Balance is either formal or informal, either psychological or physical. The proponents do not explain what they mean by “balance,” but it seems they are talking — without realizing it — of physical balance.

They want ALL ADVERSE REACTIONS TO ONE STORY to see print on the same spot where the original piece came out. In addition, they want these replies to enjoy the same prominence and come out immediately (presumably the next day).

But their bill does not tell us how this physical balance that they prescribe could be achieved.

They ignore the better option of achieving balance or fairness by some other way. They should be told that even without regard to page assignment and the depth of the text, replies or reactions can still be effective using other makeup or packaging techniques.

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OBJECTIVE VS SUBJECTIVE: Alas, the bill’s proponents do not bother to distinguish between news reports and opinion pieces.

Hard news is different from editorials, columns and such soft features. By definition, a column (such as this Postscript) is an opinion piece. It is pointless to complain that a column is opinionated and that the writer is not objective.

Forget about objectivity. Even news is generally not objective. Any piece of writing that passes through the human mind always comes out colored.

The writer and the editors who process a news report exercise value judgment. The resulting report is always subjective, never objective.

What we should demand of news reports is not objectivity — which is unattainable — but accuracy and fairness.

And we do not achieve balance by legislating it.

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SELF-DEFENSE: In an extreme act of self-defense, maybe media could fend off this meddling by politicians and onion-skinned public figures by leaving out their names in contentious stories and columns.

That way, these bigheads will have no reason to demand equal space or time to react, because they were never mentioned in the first place.

This could hurt them, because politicians thrive on publicity. But media are also entitled to defend themselves and survive in this harsh environment.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 3, 2009)

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