Malice aforethought

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Almost to a man and woman, the journalists present in a press conference called by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) last February 24 to rally opposition to the Right of Reply bills in Congress were asking why “Nene” Pimentel did it. February 24 was the eve of the final departure from power of Ferdinand Marcos 22 years ago, which made the press conference somewhat auspicious.

What Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. did was sponsor, with Francis “Chiz” Escudero among others, the Senate version of the Right of Reply bill that breezed through that chamber late last year without any dissenting vote.

Widely regarded as a human rights advocate, Pimentel should be more than familiar with repression. He was himself detained at Camp Crame during the martial law period together with other “anti-Marcos” delegates to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, and saw and heard for himself how people were being arrested on the say-so of neighbors and military spies, members of student organizations beaten, and alleged leaders of the Communist Party tortured and kept in solitary confinement.

Rather than pass the time playing scrabble and badminton, or wondering when the military would deign release him, lawyer Pimentel set up a virtual law office in both the Camp Crame gym which had been converted into a detention center for some 300 political detainees, as well as in the camp stockade where, to intimidate him, he was briefly imprisoned with hardened criminals.

In his “law office” in both the gym and the stockade, Pimentel encouraged detainees especially the poorer ones to tell him about their “cases”. Although this was problematic in those instances where there were no specific charges and only an allegation of having committed “subversion and/or rebellion wittingly or unwittingly”, Pimentel succeeded in getting some detainees accused of non-political crimes released. But what I remember him most for was his genuine compassion for those who had been arrested unjustly.

The NUJP statement said the Bill had been crafted out of “personal pique,” which in the case of Pimentel, said some journalists, probably had to do with unfair treatment by the local press in Cagayan de Oro, Pimentel’s turf. Few offered any explanation for Puentevella’s behavior. An NUJP officer did mention rather wistfully that Puentevella was once president of the Negros Press Club, to which lawyer Neri Colmenares of the National Union of People’s Lawyers reacted by saying that he was “more of a singer” rather than a journalist.

Pimentel’s sponsorship of the Senate version of the Bill moved some media people, among them TV5’s Ed Lingao, to assume absence of malice in its intentions.

Assuming the purest of motives (it’s supposedly for the media’s own good), by compelling editors to publish “replies” to accusations, innuendoes or suggestions of wrongdoing in media reports and comment, both the House and Senate versions of the bill attack the press in the newsrooms where deciding what to print is basic to the exercise of the press freedom the Constitution explicitly protects.

Neither version requires proof of unfair treatment, and merely makes it mandatory to print or air replies on demand by anyone who claims not to have been heard. The bills don’t distinguish between an innuendo or accusation made by a news source, and that by the journalist, whether in the news columns or the opinion pages. The Senate version requires the reply to be printed or aired three days after a demand is made, the House version within 24 hours. Period.

Next year being an election year, with a Right of Reply law in place the media would be so flooded with demands for the airing and printing of “replies” that there will be that much less room for the reports and commentaries that can help educate the electorate on election issues. No media organization can refuse given the penalties, which in the Senate version are limited to fines, but which in the more repressive House version include prison terms of 30 days, fines of as much as P200,000, and even the cancellation of broadcast franchises.

The suspicion that the prospect of media organizations’ being compelled to be every politician’s mouthpiece could have moved the enthusiasm of some of the sponsors in both the Senate and the House may not be misplaced, despite Pimentel’s being among them. But the consequences to an electorate that desperately needs education on the candidates and the issues could be devastating.

Limited airtime and print space would edge out reports and comment on which candidate has the background, platform, and program of action that deserve electorate consideration–information decades of experience have shown the electorate needs to make halfway intelligent decisions. What passes for democratic choice in these isles, which has been steadily demeaned by, among others, fraud and ill-informed choices, whether of leaders or policies, would be further debased.

Which more than imbues the Right of Reply bill with irony. Its impending approval after all comes in the month when, 22 years ago, a dictatorship was overthrown and the institutions of liberal democracy, among them a free press, were restored. The release of the press from the restrictions of the Marcos period recognized, among others, that a free press isn’t only a matter of tolerance in a society that would claim to be free, but a necessity.

One wonders if, at the heart of it all, lurks the same determination to prevent the press from being anywhere near the servant of democratic aspirations it should be that moved one Ferdinand Marcos to declare martial law on September 21, 1972. Bad consequences could mean bad intentions in this sorry case.

(BusinessWorld)

3 thoughts on “Malice aforethought

  1. “The media,” veteran American journalist Helen Thomas says, “is the go-between, a transmission belt to disseminate facts, figures and policies to a waiting public, explaining what the news means to their readers, viewers, and listeners.”

    Ordinary citizens generally do not have regular access to government information. But journalists do. That is why they turn to the media for updates on what their government and the men and women running it are doing.

    But a right of reply law, which is in the offing, would interrupt that function of the media.

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