POSTSCRIPT / June 16, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ressa’s cyber libel conviction is scary

TO BE honest, the cyber libel conviction yesterday of Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa and researcher-writer Reynaldo Reyes Jr. has set me worrying — not really scared but worried about special operations grave-diggers harassing journalists.

So, is journalism worth the risks that media practitioners face? Our quick answer to that is a big Yes!, a response conditioned by decades of learning, training and engaging the dark forces threatening press freedom and the people’s right to be informed.

A conviction for libel, even if only intended to intimidate, could be scary, especially when we see the forces gathering in the shadows to harass and silence those who dare to cross their partners or clients in power.

In a difficult time like this, a tired journalist is tempted to close his laptop and go on extended leave. Or if he feels compelled to keep on, should he just shift to smelling the roses, writing about nature and sunsets, hobbies, pets, and such pretty things?

But who can close his eyes to the greed and gore, the crime and corruption, the mediocrity and incompetence in government? Side by side wide-awake citizens, media cannot help exposing the oppression and the hypocrisy of people in power. At some point, media may get tired holding a mirror to society, but they cannot put it aside.

These foregoing basic thoughts on media’s mission, we want to emphasize, are not about the complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng against Ressa and Reyes. They transcend the case.

Although we did not follow the case closely, one aspect that caught our attention yesterday was that the complaint was filed in 2017, nearly five years after the article was posted on Rappler’s website. The libel case should have prescribed one year after its publication.

To argue that the alleged libel is a continuing offense since the item remains on the record, and is sometimes quoted, is absurd and illogical – for that would render all objected media reports potentially libelous as long as they exist in the archive.

For the old story to remain current despite the lapse of time leading to its prescription would raise the specter of grave-diggers exhuming and filing nuisance libel charges using the argument that the offending story is still alive, on record, in the archive.

But the case filed was for cyber libel, whose prescription period has been extended to 12 years! I think that extension was wrong, but if that’s the new law….

 Unreliable stats weaken gov’t planning

MANY Filipinos avoid giving exact numbers. When we ask how many attended a meeting, we are told “marami” (many). What time will the program start? Answer: Mamayang konti (a little later). We seem to dread using numbers to pin down time, space and most things.

After spending several days in his Davao redoubt, President Duterte flew back to the national capital the other day and found himself again facing a numbers game.

The President is reported to be choosing between the economy and public health. Why should he pick one to the exclusion of the other? Cannot he fiddle with the figures to strike a balance between the equally crucial concerns?

The problem with most figures being fed to the public, such as those in opinion surveys, on the extent of coronavirus infection, the number of drug suspects killed allegedly shooting it out with cops, et cetera, is that we have to take the numbers with the usual grain of salt.

When we are told, for instance, that the number of coronavirus cases has gone either up or down compared to the week before, we just lop off the last two or three digits and round the remainder to arrive at a guesstimate of the probable count.

This is the careless counting and the reporting of facts and figures that usually become the basis of policy and plans in the government and other entities that use statistics for direction.

Metro Manila is the Philippines’ show window. It is home to roughly a tenth of the population contributing a third of the country’s gross domestic product. To manage it, the President tries hard to come up with a balanced brew of statistics and politics.

The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) helping him fight the COVID-19 menace has given him a multiple-choice on what quarantine level is best for Metro Manila and Cebu City starting today.

The choices are to (1) retain the general community quarantine (GCQ) classification in both areas, (2) place them in the least strict modified GCQ (MGCQ), or (3) return them to more strict modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

Choosing the right answer should be easier if only he could get reliable figures from the Department of Health. The DoH reported yesterday that the COVID-19 cases in the Philippines totaled 25,030 with 539 new cases. Many people were not so sure of the numbers.

Lack of an overall plan and enough funds to carry it out has Duterte swaying between restarting the stalled economy and allowing more people to move about but risking a resurgence of infection.

But if he delays restarting the economy for fear of triggering new contamination, no new revenues would be generated and government may not be able to raise the funds it needs to sustain subsidies and the spending requirements of an anti-COVID campaign.

PhilSTAR columnist Andrew J. Masigan reported in an article in BusinessWorld: “British banking giant HSBC recently published its forecast for the Philippine economy and the outlook is bleak. After clocking-in a 0.2 percent contraction in gross domestic product in the first quarter, the bank forecasts a deep contraction of 7 percent in the second quarter, another contraction of 4.3 percent in the third quarter, and yet another shrinkage of 3.9 percent for the fourth quarter. This will bring the full-year contraction rate to 3.85 percent.

“The last time the Philippines posted negative growth was in 1998. HSBC’s forecast coincides with the projections of the National Economic and Development Authority which predicted an economic contraction of 4.3 – 4 percent.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 16, 2020)

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