A “Right of Reply” law is likely to be passed before Congress goes into Christmas recess this year. As most journalists know—or should—such laws compel media organizations to publish the reply of persons who believe themselves to have been unfairly treated by the media. They make mandatory the professional and ethical responsibility of journalists to present all sides in an issue.
The proponents say the law would be to the public’s benefit. Don’t you believe it. Both the House bill (HB 3306) and the Senate bill (SB 2150) which passed that body by a vote of 22 to 1 last June, do include among those who have the right of reply “all persons natural or juridical… accused directly or indirectly of committing or having committed or of intending to commit any crime or offense defined by law, or are criticized by innuendo, suggestion or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life.” Such persons “shall have the right to reply to the charges” whether these appeared in print or in websites, or were aired over radio and TV.
The bills differ in several ways, but are united in the common effort to punish “unfair treatment” by the media—a complaint you won’t often hear from grandma (who’s not likely to ever be in the media in her lifetime), but which every politico has honed to a fine art, the media being so crucial to his lifestyle.
The House version, which has yet to pass that chamber, demands publication of replies within “one day after the criticism or accusation shall have been made,” while the Senate bill gives media organizations three days.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Francis Escudero and Aquilino Pimentel, punishes non-compliance with fines ranging from P10,000 for the first offense to P50,000 for repeated failure or refusal to publish replies.
If the offender—whether editor, publisher, station manager or owner (it doesn’t mention bloggers despite the inclusion of websites among the possible media offenders)—is a public official, he or she would be subject to administrative charges. Unspecified “proper sanctions” may also be imposed on the offender by his or her media organization on the recommendation of the court.
The House bill, sponsored by Representatives Monico Puentevella and Bienvenido Abante, penalizes offenders with 30-day prison terms in addition to fines ranging from P10,000 to P200,000. It also mandates the suspension of “the franchise of the publication (sic! Philippine publications are not franchised) or broadcast media outlet or station for 30 days for the fifth and succeeding offenses.”
Assuming passage of the Puentevella bill in the House, the next step would be to reconcile the two versions through the bicameral committee. The prognosis is that the resulting bill would pass and become law before Christmas.
The House version, with its prison terms and suspension of media franchises, is obviously the more repressive, and brazenly ignores Article III Section 4 of the Constitution. But the Senate bill is no less corrosive of press freedom and free expression, despite the Pimentel claim that it would enhance press freedom by making the media “more credible.”
The fines the Senate bill would impose can cripple community media organizations such as newspapers run on shoestring budgets. The reality and even the mere possibility of being fined is likely to be enough for them to cease publication—the opposite of the preferred goal of media development, specially at the community level where the media can, and in some communities already are, providing the citizenry the information it needs to make informed decisions on public issues.
But there’s a more critical issue involved. This is the extent to which a law compelling media organizations to publish replies on demand by various groups and individuals denies editors the prerogative of deciding what to air or print. That prerogative is fundamental to the exercise of press freedom, together with the right to decide which events, processes, or issues to cover, report, and comment on.
But it’s not only the right of reply bill that’s threatening to undermine this basic expression of press freedom. In a June 2008 decision, the Makati Regional Trial Court threw out a complaint by several media organizations and journalists against the Department of the Interior and Local Governments and the Philippine National Police for the arrest of media people during the Peninsula Hotel incident on November 29, 2007. The decision declared it legal for the police to decide whether or not to arrest journalists covering similar events in the future, in effect giving the police the right to decide what events may be legitimately covered by the media. Thanks to that decision, the PNP now has editorial prerogatives.
The right of reply bill is in the same category of repression. The practical difficulties of compliance could destroy media organizations. Assuming a right of reply bill penalizing non-compliance is passed, the consequences should be starkly evident by 2010. That year being an election year, we can expect the usual charges and counter- charges being hurled by this candidate and that. Print and broadcast organizations would either hesitate to publish reports that could prod those involved to exercise their legally mandated right of reply, or if compelled by the news value of an event to do so, would be vulnerable to a deluge of such demands.
Which brings up the question of whether a right of reply bill is being timed for approval for the 2010 elections, and with an eye on future campaign periods. During election campaigns specially, any politician on whom there is a report can demand that his or her reply—he or she doesn’t have to prove unfair treatment—be printed or aired. Imagine the possibilities for free publicity—at the expense not only of media organizations, but also and more fundamentally, at the cost of denying the public the information it needs that the media could have made available.
So sorry, media organizations could rightfully argue, we have to publish the replies of politicians A, B, C, D, E ad infinitum. That’s why we can’t publish these worthies’ programs and platforms– if they have any. In the Philippine context a right of reply law would benefit the politicians first, second and last, at the expense of the media and the usual victim of what passes for lawmaking in this country, the public.
Luis V. Teodoro was a complainant in the 2007 class suit against the DILG and the PNP.
Comments and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com