Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Isa pang dagok sa press freedom

For whom the bill talks: A primer on the Right of Reply Bill

Prepared by the College Editors Guild of the Philippines

February 2009

This primer seeks to shed analysis and explain in detail why the College Guild of the Philippines is steadfastly rejecting the Right of Reply Bill.

What is the Right of Reply Bill?

In June 2004, Senate Bill (SB) 1178 was filed by Senator Aquilino Pimentel during the 13th Congress. The said bill, however, passed the third reading but failed to get approved due to lack of time. When Congress resumed sessions in June 2007, Pimentel immediately re-filed his bill and gained Senate approval by June 2008. SB 1178 was then effectively substituted by SB 2150.

On July 29, 2008, the Senate passed SB 2150, otherwise known as: “An Act Granting the Right of Reply and Providing Penalties for Violation Thereof,” on its third reading. It was supported by Senators Ramon Bong Revilla Jr., Francis “Chiz” Escudero, Mar Roxas, Loren Legarda and Pimentel, among others.

Meanwhile, Bacolod City Representative Monico Puentevella filed House Bill (HB) 1001 and Aurora Congressman Juan Edgardo Angara filed HB 162 as counterparts of SB 2150 in the Lower House. These two bills were combined and were substituted by HB 3306. HB 3306 is currently being heard in the Lower House, with Congressmen Bienvenido Abante, Angara and Puentevella as main sponsors.

It is interesting to note that although SB 2150 and HB 3306 were filed in different houses, they bear identical titles and has a hair strand difference.

The Right of Reply Bill would mandate media companies, outfits and entities to provide “equal space or airtime” to anyone who is a subject of critical reports, to reply or react as form of the latter’s freedom of expression, thus, the right to reply. The bill, furthermore, stipulates that this be done within three (3) days of a news item’s publication or airing.

The House measure furthermore seeks to punish the publisher and editor-in-chief of a publication or the owner and station manager of a broadcast outfit if they fail to comply or give “equal treatment” to a complainant’s reply to a specific report.

The Senate approved the passage of the bill by a vote of 21-0. Congress, on the other hand, has delayed the hearing of the bill following strong opposition from media organizations and civil society groups. Supporters of the bill in the House of Representatives, however, are preparing a so-called ‘watered down’ version of the said bill following strong opposition from various media organizations.

Senators Escudero, Legarda and Roxas have also retracted their signatures on the Senate version, while Malacanang has vowed to veto the bill if and when Congress approves it.

This initial triumph of exposing the Right of Reply Bill can only be attributed to the overwhelming unity of campus press, media practitioners and concerned groups over the bill’s threat to press freedom and freedom of expression.

Why reject the Right of Reply Bill?

1. The Bill is unconstitutional. It violates Article III, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances,” as well as several principles of criminal law.

National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) secretary general Neri Colmenares cited the overly broad and vague provision in the bill mandating the right of reply of all persons “who are criticized by innuendo, suggestion, or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life” in saying that the elements of a supposed crime are “not clear.” “Who decides what is ‘innuendo, suggestion, rumor or lapse in behavior’?” Colmenares said.

Moreover, once the bill is signed into law, Filipinos will also, directly or indirectly, be denied of their right to information which is the building block of any sound judgment that will lead to actions meant to preserve the rights and welfare of the citizenry.

2. The Bill is repressive. Should the bill pass into law, many journalists and/or media outfits will be hindered from performing their prime tasks as watchdogs of society out of fear of paying sums of pesos as punishment for not printing the reply of a “ridiculed or maligned” person.

The Guild believes the bill, which requires or mandates media outfits to publish or air replies in the same space, be it front page or inside story, encroaches on the right of the editorial board to determine the content of publications according to the relevance of issues.

With this bill, the prerogative of the press to determine what to publish or broadcast is undermined for it compels the media to print or air the reply of the “aggrieved” person who does not even have the burden to prove that he has been affected by a report.

Prof. Danilo Arao of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications states, “As it is, the bill has negative repercussions on the workings of the press. Editors, normally referred to as the gatekeepers of information, should be allowed to choose which stories get published, aired or uploaded and which stories are given due prominence based on the time-tested elements of news.

Instead of coming up with bills that seek to legislate how the media should function, it would do well for legislators to help strengthen self-regulation in media by creating an environment conducive for the effective practice of the media profession.”

Consequently, Section 3 of the Right of Reply Bill is sure to undermine especially the campus press. Due to lack of resources and its common operations, it is impossible for majority of campus publications to comply “not later than one day” as prescribed by HB 3306 or “not later than three days” according to SB 2150. Never has there been a daily student publication in the entire history of campus press.

Also, advocacy press, which includes student gazettes, would certainly fall victim to this bill due to the nature of their writings. It does not appease at all that the status quo of politics and press freedom in the country has been known to favor politicians and other prominent individuals in legal venues. Suffice to say, under such conditions that press people are working in, the Right of Reply Bill is not democratic at all, it is ultra democracy at the expense of press freedom and freedom of expression.

3. The Bill is pointless. There is no need for the Right of Reply Bill at all. The “aggrieved” person/s that the bill claims to protect has long been valued by the media in its practice of always getting two sides of the story.

While the Guild relents that media’s record is not entirely spotless, it echoes the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) sentiment that “we cannot allow the sins of the few to be an excuse for the wholesale muzzling of a free press and the suppression of free expression. To do so would to allow bad governance to triumph.”

There are, also, inevitable reasons why sometimes only one side is aired or published: the person either refuses interview and/or the person is out-of-reach.

Moreover, as a practice, the media accommodates not just replies but even criticisms and statements through spaces such as the letter to the editor and opinion sections.

Furthermore, if the claim that this bill seeks to mitigate journalist killings in the country is to be believed, there is no reason, still, to discuss the bill at all. In resolving the culture of impunity, what the Philippine press needs is political will, not a mere bill.

What can we do?

1. Publish opposition to the Right of Reply Bill in campus papers, blogs and websites, emails and forum threads, or you may re-post this material. Write letters to the editors and opinion columns.

2. Organize fora and/or small group discussions in campus publication offices and other venues on the Right of Reply Bill. This primer may be reproduced or reprinted.

3. Email or send a letter rejecting the bill to offices of congressmen and senators, especially the bill’s sponsors.

4. Sign the petition against the Right of Reply Bill. (Attached herewith is CEGP’s petition.)

5. Join protest actions against the Right of Reply Bill.

Gag us NOT! Reject the Right of Reply Bill!

Defend Press Freedom! Uphold Campus Press Freedom!

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