At least two Manila columnists have come to the defense of Vic Agustin, suspended columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Carmen Pedrosa of the Philippine Star, who was among those present during the press conference called by House Speaker De Venecia last week to announce the House’s retreat from the con-ass (don’t call it a con by asses), did it by condemning Renato Constantino Jr., as did Amando Doronila of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Agustin was suspended by the Inquirer for throwing a glassful of water on Constantino, an act the Inquirer described as “boorish behavior” worthy of suspension for a day, which it later changed to a month.

The son of the late historian Renato Constantino had berated De Venecia and his House faithful, otherwise known as the triple Cs–the Charter Change Cabal–for their being “totally bereft of principle” and “without shame.” Both partisans of the De Venecia plan, Pedrosa and Agustin were in the press conference, together with, among others, Belinda Cunanan, also of the PDI. Doronila wasn’t.

Pedrosa leaped to De Venecia’s defense and screamed at Constantino to shut up. But Agustin did her one better by grabbing a drinking goblet and throwing its contents on Constantino. Agustin earlier tried to justify what he did by saying that Constantino needed cooling off, but when suspended by his newspaper accepted the penalty without much fuss.

In her Philippine Star column last Saturday (December 16) Pedrosa disputed and dismissed Constantino’s claim that he was the victim in the water-throwing incident by “revealing”–it is generally known–that Constantino has been charged with rebellion for supposedly being part of the “Leftist-military coup plot” of February. She also made public the contents of an affidavit by a military witness against Constantino.

Doronila, on the other hand, described Constantino in his December 15 column as “an interloper and usurper.” The basis for the first accusation is Constantino’s not being a member of the press and his not having been invited to the press conference. Constantino, said Doronila, “had no business being there.” As for the second label, I suppose Constantino also “usurped” the divine right of Agustin, Pedrosa and other media people to be in a press conference.

Doronila intoned that a press conference “is a long standing institutional forum in which members of the press carry out informed dialogue with the official and private sectors for the purpose of clarifying issues involving the public interest.” It’s very serious business, Doronila is saying, which Constantino, and therefore any non-media person, had no right to attend, much less disrupt.

Constantino, after all, is only a street activist who “excels in shouting matches that pass for reasoned arguments.” For that offense, says Doronila, the police get to water cannon and/or bash in the heads of people like him–and deservedly, too. Constantino should have been thankful that all he got was a douse of water (was that part of the “informed dialogue”?) from Agustin, who, Doronila says, did what he did because he was actually so concerned for the Philippine press, whose “institutions” (i.e., press conferences) he only wanted people to respect.

As for the idea that what Agustin and company did was to suppress Constantino’s right to free expression, abandon that thought, because Agustin was responding to “extreme provocation and abuse of the press conference as a mechanism for informed press-official dialogue on important public issues.”

Doronila is saying that words can be met with a physical response, the way the police greet with truncheons, water cannon and even guns the speeches in the streets Doronila abhors. He is also saying that ordinary citizens should be so bound by the rules of decorum and Emily Post they may express their opinions only in “proper” settings, which exclude press conferences because these are “institutions” sacred to the press.

That should be news to most people who think that a press conference is a public gathering open to, well, the public. In Doronila’s universe, it seems that the press can block the avenues of free expression when certain members of it, rather than speak for the people, speak only for some people like De Venecia and company. In the face of such an infamy and “extreme provocation” as the attempt to railroad the “con-ass”, citizens must also bow to the demands of good manners.

Is an accusation the same as a conviction? Constantino is indeed accused of rebellion, but has not been convicted. If he were, would that make what Agustin did right, because it would then turn out that he had doused water on a rebel, rather than engage him in argument and debate, which are among the “institutions” the press must protect? And who must press people serve? Themselves and the politicians, or the citizenry that’s steadily being deprived of the right to free expression whether in the streets or indoors?

Are Doronila and Pedrosa actually saying that the rights of citizens are nothing compared to the rights of politicians and members of the press, in effect validating the suppression of citizen rights?

These are dangerous doctrines that can just as easily be used against the press itself. They are based on the illusion that the press is a privileged power, and are among the reasons why the public has become increasingly skeptical of the media. This skepticism partly explains public indifference to threats against the press. They are as dangerous to the media as they are to ordinary citizens whose rights the press is duty-bound to protect.

The egos of media people have been described as “as big as cathedrals”. Many citizens believe that members of the press think themselves to be God’s gift to the world who can pass judgment on everyone and everything, but who may not themselves be judged, especially by folk they dismiss as “non-members of the media.” But only the last part of that description may be accurate, at least in the Philippines. Some media people’s egos in these parts are in fact far bigger than cathedrals.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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