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.