Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Pimentel bill and our naked “presidentiables”

A Senate bill authored by Senators Aquilino Pimentel Jr. Ramon Revilla Jr. and Francis Escudero on “the right of reply” has divided defenders of press freedom into two opposing camps, ironically on how best to serve that freedom. It has raised such a storm that Escudero, Mar Roxas and Loren Legarda----all with presidential ambitions----have been compelled to announce their “withdrawal of support” from the bill after supporting it all the way up to third reading. Malacanang’s own spokesmen have contributed their own kneejerk by presumptuously committing the President to veto the bill.

The bill was first introduced by Pimentel as Senate Bill No. 1178---“An Act Granting the Right of Reply and Providing Penalties for Violation Thereof.” The Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Revilla Jr. and the Committee on Justice and Human Rights by Escudero came up with S.B. 2150, a substitute bill of the same title, with Revilla Jr. and Escudero joining Pimentel as co-authors. Under Committee Report (CR) 43, they asked the Senate to pass the bill.

The Senate has approved the bill, and the House of Representatives is now working on its own. If the House bill passes, a bicamercal conference committee will have to reconcile the two bills. The final version will be ratified by both Houses; then it goes to the Prsident for signature.

Some opponents of the measure have tried to hype the three senators’ so-called “withdrawal” to show the bill is bad news. The purported “withdrawal,” however, has no value whatsoever. It is pure moonshine--- cheap political posturing. It is like withdrawing money from a bank after you have closed your account. Let me explain.

Escudero, as co-author, is partly responsible for crafting S.B. 2150 and CR 43, which asked the Senate to approve the bill. Without SB 2150 and CR 43, we would not be having this discussion at all. Nothing in the Senate rules allows him to disown his report or his vote on the bill.

The same with Roxas and Legarda. Although not co-authors, they voted for the bill, and their votes can no longer be withdrawn. What “withdrawal” then are they talking about? Legarda’s unctuous quote about choosing an “untrammelled press” over a press “dictated to” by state authority is a false proposition; it is sheer pompous nonsense.

The saucy propaganda by the three senators is a clear attempt to exploit the ignorance of the ignorant, if they can. They assume the people know nothing about the first rule on voting and will swallow their cheap posturing, hook, line and sinker. They are more afraid of losing the media for their presidential ambitions than of anything toxic in the bill. So they want to assure the media that, regardless of their having voted for the bill, they too are now against it. Routine demagoguery and opportunism. But the people are not such damn fools. They see how truly naked these “presidentiables” are.

Simply put, the bill seeks to guarantee the right of every person, natural or juridical, to reply to any accusation or criticism in any media of communication. The media have always recognized this right; in fact, one of the canons of responsible journalism provides that no one shall be accused of any wrongdoing without being given the chance to present his side. Responsible media organizations that try to live by this canon cannot be terrified by a law that would compel the irresponsible to be faithful to the norm.

But both responsible and irresponsible media are obviously intimidated by the boundless implications of a law that would require them to provide equal space and time to every individual who feels unjustly accused or maligned in print or on the air. Without adequate standards in the law, there is reason to be concerned. What happens, for instance, when a newspaper says it stands by its story about an official’s wrongdoing even while printing the official’s denial of the same? Is it obliged to print the succeeding denial? At what point is the right of reply fully satisfied? This has to be in the bill.

Since Pimentel and his critics share the same passion for press freedom, can they not work together through the House bill, which is still on the floor, and the bicameral conference committee when it is finally convened, to make sure that the focus is on the right of private citizens, who are not normally quoted by media, rather than on the right of public officials and personalities, who are? Can the bill not provide that the media’s prompt publication of an individual’s reply to any published accusation against him would sufficiently bar him from filing a libel complaint on the same incident against the same media organization or practitioner?

Shouldn’t all of us aim for a law that seeks to promote a sound media environment that encourages public officials and citizens alike to reply to attacks and criticisms in the media in the most civilized manner and not to take out a contract on “offending” journalists and broadcasters?