Bad medicine

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The Right of Reply bill is far from dead despite the withdrawal of support for it by senators who either sponsored it, voted for it, or supported it by not saying a word against it. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., its principal sponsor in the Senate, insists that the journalists and journalists’ groups opposed to it have yet to convince him that their opposition is reasonable. The chief sponsor of the House version, Monico Puentevella, although he’s declared that the House version of the bill will no longer mandate prison terms for those editors who fail to publish “replies,” is still pushing it—and I use the term “pushing it” advisedly and in the same sense that a drug dealer pushes his dangerous wares.

If shoddy and unfair reporting is the disease it’s meant to address, a right of reply bill is no cure, and is in fact worse than the disease in that it’s certain to kill the patient. The patient isn’t press freedom alone. It’s the entire media system as well, whose primary function is providing information more than entertainment.

No one among those opposed to the Right of Reply bill on principle will argue that shoddy reporting doesn’t exist. There have been too many instances (in some cases involving journalists themselves who’re attacked by those cheap practitioners who know next to nothing about the responsibilities of journalism) in which the right of reply is denied those who have been maligned in the media either through bad reporting, malicious comment, or both. But the right of reply is among the ethical principles reporters and other media practitioners, especially editors, should recognize and honor by, first of all, getting the facts right through multiple sourcing and double and even triple-checking; and second, by voluntarily printing replies from those whose side was not heard, whether through media incompetence or malice.

Our best journalists consult a constellation of human as well as documentary sources when writing investigative and other in-depth reports. When reporting on their beats, responsible reporters take care to cite both sides in an issue. Those who fail to do so get a dressing down from their editors, and have their copy subjected to major surgery. Journalism is after all a discipline of verification, its justification being accuracy first of all. Accuracy also demands fairness (presenting both or all sides) as well as balance (providing all sides in any question equal space in the case of print and equal time in the case of electronic media). Reporters do this by reporting the denial by someone accused of wrongdoing as well as the accusation. Opinion writers also need to at least provide the other side of the argument, and are no less bound by the rules of accuracy and fairness.

Fairness and accuracy don’t happen a hundred percent of the time. No doubt many individuals have been damaged by the failure of the press to verify “facts”, and to be fair and balanced. But both as an indication of good faith as well as to improve their reporting, the major media players in print and broadcast have put in place internal codes of behavior in addition to expecting adherence to the Philippine Journalists Code of Ethics and the KBP Broadcast Code among their staff.

Some media organizations also have media ombudsmen; others have correction boxes as well as readers’ advocates. These don’t always work (But what does? The courts as well as many other institutions certainly don’t. ) — which means that greater efforts must be exerted to better educate journalists (at the school level and on the job). Government regulation looks like a quick fix, a viable alternative to the complex difficulties of media self-regulation. It isn’t.

Government regulation has been tried before, during the martial law period, and government media are still regulated today. It didn’t lead to, and has not produced the fair, relevant, and accurate reporting and comment (have you seen the so-called “news programs” over NBN-4 lately?) those who favor government regulation think necessarily follows. A major reason is that government media regulators, whether in Burma or Zimbabwe, have seldom been knowledgeable or honest enough to do a good job of it. (During the early days of martial law, sergeants from the AFP Civil Relations Office passed on the merits of the articles in the newspapers they monitored, despite doubts over whether they could even read them.)

The Constitutional argument (based on Article III, Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…”) is less vital than the fact that legislating ethics (an oxymoron, ethics being a matter of voluntary compliance) is a form of government regulation, and leads to even less information than the little now available to a public that desperately needs more.

The Right of Reply bill is a form of government regulation that avoids that phrase, but nevertheless puts the press under the government’s thumb. It does this by endowing whoever claims to have been unfairly treated (and the bills don’t say unfair treatment has to be proven) with the editorial prerogative to decide what gets to be printed, in the same manner that the decision of the Makati Regional Trial Court last year declaring the arrest of journalists at the Peninsula Hotel legal endows the police with the editorial prerogative to decide what events may be covered by the media. (The PNP’s Verzosa is now de jure editor- in- chief as well as news editor of all Philippine media.)

On the practical side, during heated political periods when accusations are flying thick and fast, with a right of reply law in force the media would be so deluged by a tidal wave of replies that little else can be published, thus denying the public the information it needs.

What’s worse is that the tidal wave is likely to be generated by the flacks who (to mix metaphors) infest this country like a locust swarm — the PR people disguised as “information officers” resident in the offices of government officials from councilors to mayors to governors, congressmen, senators and the President. Their outputs rarely meet editorial standards, but would have to be given the space and time they’re not getting today.

If only for the chilling possibility that with a right of reply law in place, the incompetents who write the press releases for government officials and who will be writing their replies in their names will be assured of publication, we should put the right of reply bill on that shelf labeled bad medicine, together with the snake-oil, the miracle cancer cure, and the arsenic.

(BusinessWorld)

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