If he’s serious about it, Makati Congressman Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s bill amending the libel law is something journalists should be able live with, even if only temporarily.

Locsin’s amendment to Article 354 of the Revised Penal code, which defines libel and punishes it with prison terms, would make voluntary publication of a reply from someone who believes himself aggrieved by the media — or the media offender’s retraction of any suggestion or implication of wrongdoing — a guarantee against being sued for libel.

If he’s serious about it, Locsin’s House Bill 3306 (“An Act Extinguishing All Liability for Libel Upon the Publication of a Reply or Retraction”) would add to Article 354 a paragraph declaring that “The publication in full and in the same space or time of the reply of the offended party — or the complete retraction of the offending party of the allegedly libelous remarks — shall extinguish all liability, civil or criminal, including costs arising therefrom.”

This amendment to the libel law will not decriminalize libel. But it would blunt the teeth of libel as a criminal offense, which in recent years has had an intimidating impact on the press. It was for libel that Davao broadcaster Lex Adonis was sentenced to four years in prison, out of which he served two. In several instances since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power, other journalists have been terrorized by the possibility of being arrested, in one case right at the Malacanang beat where the journalist was assigned.

If he’s serious about it, Locsin’s amendment to the libel law — which he’s also pushing as a substitute for the right of reply bill his colleagues in Congress are raring to approve so their PR people and speechwriters can demand and get space in the newspapers and airtime over radio and television — could be a way out of the media-Congress stalemate over the right of reply bill. Instead of a right of reply, the subject of a media report or comment would have the opportunity to respond to any allegation of wrongdoing should the editor decide to give him or her the time and space in exchange for a guarantee against a libel suit.

Editors would have the same guarantee should they publish a retraction. It’s a reasonable, though temporary compromise between, on the one hand, media opposition to the right of reply bill as well as their campaign for the decriminalization of libel, and on the other, the politicians’ insistence on forcing the media to publish replies and their steadfast commitment to keeping libel as a criminal offense.

If Locsin’s serious about it.

If he’s serious about it, his amendment could gain acceptance among his colleagues in Congress because they would still have the option to sue for libel and to send journalists to prison should there be no apology and no publication of their reply to whatever has been published or aired about them.

On the other hand, his amendment would remove from the discussion over the right of reply the bottom line basis for media rejection of it: the compulsion to publish any reply from anyone who either sincerely thinks he’s been abused by the media, or who maliciously wants only the space and airtime for free, self-serving publicity.

One hopes that Locsin is serious about it. The caveat is necessary because Locsin’s press statement on the subject (“No Multiple Personality Disorder: Chance to Reply and Right to Retract Bill”) treats press freedom as almost as big a joke as the House of Representatives.

Locsin doesn’t want journalists to take either press freedom or themselves seriously. He says “any journalist who takes himself too seriously is not a serious journalist but is probably an academic or a media watchdog.” I say that any alleged lawmaker who thinks an issue over which hundreds of journalists are concerned is something to laugh at is probably a congressman who doesn’t give a hoot about press freedom’s worth in a society ruled by the worst political class in Asia.

Locsin in fact makes serious fun of press freedom by repeating the usual cliché so often heard in congressional circles, Malacanang, the sacred precincts of the Philippine National Police, the dark heart of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the rank premises of the National Press Club — that press freedom “is not a sacred right”. Which it probably isn’t in other places like the United States, but which it should be in these isles of fear, secrecy and absurdity, primarily because the people who rule the country of our agony regard neither law nor common decency with any respect, let alone sanctity.

I must confess that just like the members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, after decades of witnessing the idiocies of and listening to the idiots in this country who call themselves its leaders, I too have lost my sense of humor.

I’ve lost my sense of humor over the wiretapping charge against Probe Productions’ Cheche Lazaro. I can’t laugh over the threat to the life of New York Times Philippine correspondent Carlos Conde, whose name is in the AFP’s order of battle in Davao. I don’t think shooting at journalists from a motorcycle qualifies as comedy. And I don’t see anything funny either in the campaign by the politicians to ram a right of reply bill down the throats of the media organizations whether great or small, and whether Lopez- or NGO- owned.

That must be because, again like the members of the NUJP, I’m not a serious journalist. I am in fact not only an academic, but also part of a media watchdog group. Talk about taking one’s self too seriously!


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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