By Juan L. Mercado
CONGRESS’ BID to legislate “right to reply” kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest Filipino balikbayans, theology professors to online editors skewered House Bill 3306 and Senate Bill 2150.
These bills shred liberty of expression, Inquirer asserted Philippine Press Institute, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkasters and other groups protested. So has the Commission on Human Rights. Compulsory replies, they stress, is verboten “prior restraint.”
Author Sen. Aquilino Pimentel dug in. “Show me reasoned arguments for withdrawing this measure.” This assumes monopoly on reason. And he dumps burden of proof on the press.
“Any prior restraint… must hurdle a high barrier,” Justice Antonio Carpio wrote in his tightly-reasoned concurring opinion for the National Telecommunications case ( GR No 168338). ”Such prior restraint is presumed unconstitutional. (And) government bears a heavy burden of proving constitutionally of such restraint.”
Thus, authors like Sen. Francisco Escudero withdrew support. :”We recognize editorial functions are privately exercised prerogatives,” Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara wrote.
Cebu Citizens Press Council filed a carefully-reasoned protest a full year before today’s quagmire.. Anchor “Che-Che” Lazaro fretted these bills violated “prior restraint” in ABS-CBN’s “Media In Focus” program. last November. Did anybody listen?
From New Mexico, retired professor Antonio Marquez cautions: “Be wary of good-cop-bad-cop drills. President Arroyo pledged a veto. She’s the good cop. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales backs the bill. He’s the bad cop. In the end, all would gag the press — for political survival.”
“Test this bill in specific cases. Some 193 officials ran off with fertilizer plunder grants. Bill author Monico Puentebella got P5-mllion. Would the 192 get equal space or airtime as Puentebella?”
On Internet, ”legislated right of reply would be more preposterous, “ writes Nini Cabaero, Sun Star’s online editor.
“A website is venue for online journalism. It’s updated several times a day as news develops. Or it can be removed at will”. If RoR bills became law, aggrieved parties – say those zapped for ZTE broadband scams or collusion in World Bank road bids – can shape web pages, based on their grievances, not the news.
Do their replies stay in the webpage one minute? Quarter of an hour? As long as the offending story stayed on said page ? “What is adequate compliance?.”
“News can break at anytime,” Cabaero notes. What if a major story happens, say the President steps down? Web pages would be immediately recast. That’s the character of internet. Today, editors have the prerogative to recast. . Pimental & Co.would muscle aside editors and decide.
“Website journalists are governed by the same principles” imposed on print and tv journalists, she wrote We ”work in a continuous 24/7 cycle of news assessment. Articles are uploaded, moved, or deleted”. Online editors make judgement calls based on assessment of events and news values. They do not act on whim, certainly not on chip-on-their-shoulders complaints.
Internet’s unique character makes it possible for websites to dodge RoR laws, Cabaero notes.. Posted in one minute, a reply can be removed the next. Will it stay only for as long as the source views it? Or when editors say enough?. We’d see a cat-and-mouse game emerge.. “It could come to that if the right of reply bill became law”.
“Media self-regulation is an innovative approach to democracy,” writes Fr. Aloysius Cartagenas of Seminario Mayor de San Carlos in Cebu. Like a “fourth branch” alongside the legislative, executive and judiciary branches, media regulates political power by acting as public watchdog and purveyor of information.
This structure is changing due to “market forces” and burgeoning strength of “civil society”. Media must “ensure a common public sphere where everybody can communicate in dialogue.” In this new role, masters of press freedom are no longer the media but the citizens.
Media’s evolving role is advocate and animator of the right to communicate.” From simple objective reporters, media become s moderators supporting citizen participation and working as extensions of democracy…
“In this light, self-regulation, not a state legislative intervention, is the answer as to how to ensure the proper role of media… in a democratizing society. “It disturbs right order to take from the media what they can accomplish by their own initiative.”
Those who hold reins of power, in governance and in markets, who opt not to serve the common good, feel threatened. “That fear, rather than lack of understanding, appears to be the root to legislate the right to reply.”
Congressmen like Manila’s Bienvenido Abante, meanwhile, dangle ”alternatives”. . In exchange for RoR bills, Congress could allow media to draft implementing rules..That’s permitting the press to choose the rope to hang itself with.
We could decriminalize libel, offers Speaker Prospero Nograles. That’s a different banana. It can stand or fall on it’s own merits. But for RoR, the bottom line is: Media has no power or right to swap a constitutional shield for concessions. If that privilege is peddled, the press will sell, like Faustus, it’s very soul…
“I won’t back down”, Pimentel snaps Me Tarzan. The press will have no choice but also to stand fast. We’d make the most unlikely of Tarzans.