POSTSCRIPT / May 12, 2009 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Suing doesn’t answer issues on GSIS funds

CHECHE CASE: The suit filed by a GSIS official against broadcast journalist Cheche Lazaro for airing parts of their telephone conversation on public school teachers’ welfare has serious implications on the state of press freedom in the country.

Vice President Ella Valencerina of the Government Service Insurance System alleged that Lazaro recorded the interview and aired without consent excerpts in the “Probe” show on ABS-CBN. The story was about GSIS’s Premium-Based Policy that allegedly deprived teachers of benefits.

Lazaro posted bail last Friday after MTC Judge Josephine Advento of Pasay City ordered her arrest with the filing of wiretapping criminal charges. There were at least 15 others from “Probe” and the TV network originally accused. All of them had been dropped, except Lazaro.

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NEW CRIME: Lazaro said: “It is mind-boggling why I am being singled out for prosecution for doing my job as a responsible journalist (or for following the tenets of responsible journalism).

“If raising the concerns of underpaid public school teachers deprived of their benefits by a publicly accountable government institution and giving my accuser the airtime to explain her boss’s side are now considered crimes under our laws, then I plead guilty.”

Valencerina chided Lazaro for making the case a press-freedom issue, adding that she sued to protect her rights as a private individual.

She asked: “Are members of media allowed to violate the individual rights of a person? Can media practitioners simply call you up, record your conversation, and broadcast it for the entire world to hear; all these, without your knowledge, much less, your permission?”

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PRIVACY: It is ironic that Valencerina is the GSIS Vice President for Public Relations and Communications. I pity her for having to tangle with the media for her superiors while trying to establish good press relations for them.

Saying that her right to privacy as guaranteed by the Constitution was violated by Lazaro, Valencerina cited Section 3 (1) of the Bill of Rights, which says:

“The privacy of communications and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise as prescribed by law.”

She said Lazaro also violated the Journalist’s Code of Ethics, specifically its provision that says a journalist “shall not violate confidential information or material given her in the exercise of her calling” and “shall resort only to fair and honest methods in her effort to obtain news, photographs and/or documents….”

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PUBLIC ISSUES: Lazaro riposted: “This is a small price to pay for bringing a perfectly legitimate public interest issue out in the open. ‘Probe’ will not be intimidated into submission.

“I just wish my accuser(s) will play fair and hire private lawyers instead of using government lawyers (from the GSIS), whose salaries are incidentally paid for by, among others, the teachers shortchanged by the questionable policy of the GSIS and private citizens like me who pay taxes.

“In the last 22 years, ‘Probe’ has carved a niche in the industry and won recognition here and abroad for consistently adhering to time-honored journalistic values of accuracy, fairness and objectivity. My team and I have no plans of changing the way we work just to accommodate the personal agenda of people in power.”

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FOREWARNED: A general rule in news coverage is that when a member of media interviews a public figure on public issues, it is presumed that both sides are aware that the interview could be published or broadcast.

Valencerina, a vice president for media and information, must be aware of this.

The interviewer need not warn his subject at every turn that anything he says may be quoted in the press. The only exception is if the interviewee had refused to be quoted.

As far as I know, Valencerina did decline to be interviewed, citing what to her was the bias of the Lopez-owned ABS-CBN. I find the bias line irrelevant considering that ABS-CBN is not the “Probe” producer and Lazaro is not a Lopez employee.

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DUTY TO INFORM: The more relevant point is that Valencerina cannot, on her mere invoking of alleged bias, refuse to answer legitimate media questions on contributions and benefits of teachers, who are GSIS members.

Precisely, it is her duty as the GSIS official for public relations to provide full and timely information on members’ urgent concerns. She should be patient in explaining how members’ contributions and vested rights are being managed.

Valencerina should advise her bosses not to be onion-skinned when being asked about the billions in members’ funds entrusted to their care.

Some GSIS officials have grown oversensitive. When bombarded with questions from media and members, they tend to respond with harassment suits instead of simply answering the legitimate questions.

Kaya tuloy, the impression is that they are hiding something gross and smelly.

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PAM-BUL CONFAB: A three-day national conference on Bulacan-Pampanga history, arts and culture opens today at Holy Angel University in Angeles City. More than 20 research papers are to be read and discussed.

Some years ago, Pampanga also partnered with Cavite in a conference titled “Inyo ang Cavite, Amin ang Pampanga: The Historical and Cultural Convergences and Divergences Between the Two Provinces,” also held at HAU.

Bulacan was once a part of Pampanga, when the Spanish colonial regime divided Luzon into three mega-provinces: the northern part as the province of Ylocos, the Tagalog region all the way to Bicol as the province of Manila, and Central Luzon as the province of La Pampanga.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 12, 2009)

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