“WHY WE OPPOSE THE PROPOSED ‘RIGHT OF REPLY’ LAW”
(Letter shared by Jose Torres, Jr. with media practitioners at the “Peace Consultation & Dialogue: Mindanao Media Forum on Peace, Conflict and Security”, hosted by Civil Society Organization Forum for Peace in Iligan City, 7-8th March 2009)
The proposed right of reply measure is by its very nature unconstitutional and only reflects the obsolete, if not selfish mindset of our lawmakers.
Our Constitution states that no law shall be passed abridging the people’s right to information and freedom of expression.
(Article III, Section 4): No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech …”
Article III, Section 7 states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
Unfortunately, this provision is not yet in force because Congress has yet to pass an implementing law.
The proposed bill attempts to muzzle our freedom and curtail our rights.
It reflects a Jurassic and obsolete mindset because it shows our lawmakers’ distrust with media, supposedly a partner in building and strengthening our democracy.
The proponents of the measure think that media and media practitioners in this country are immature and irresponsible.
They may be partly right, and we do not deny that there were times that we have acted irresponsibly. But the Constitution does not say that irresponsibility is a crime. Human rights violations and the silencing of a free media are.
We have enough laws, actually harsh laws against irresponsible journalists. We have been demanding for the decriminalization of libel, another obsolete legislation. But what our lawmakers did was add harsher penalties, including the raising of the amount of fines. The only thing that they gave to us was the issue of the venue of the filing of a complaint.
The freedom of the press is not unlimited because of the libel law and even civil statutes that bar journalists from prying into other people’s homes and family lives or otherwise disrespecting another’s “dignity, personality, privacy and peace of mind.”
Why do we oppose the right of reply bill?
One, for practical reasons: How can a small local paper cope when it has to double the number of issues to print the replies – a waste of ink, paper and man hours. It also biased against small publications that cannot pay the huge amount of fines. It could be a death sentence for small but crusading publications especially in the provinces. It could also have a chilling effect. Journalists will not publish or broadcast stories that they think would invite a reply.
The guarantee of free speech and the press was enshrined in the Constitution precisely to defend crusading publications that come out with the truth even if it hurts.
What our lawmakers want is an automatic “right of reply” in all media – including blogs and even civil society text campaigns and publications,
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who authored the Senate version, said the “right to reply” is intended “to protect people from inaccurate or untruthful articles in the media that put them in bad light or malign them, whether intentionally or not.”
He said it is an “expansion of the freedom of expression so that people in general will enjoy the right of free speech which should be respected by the media.”
Rep. Monico Puentevella, author of a counterpart bill in the House of Representatives, said he has been a victim of unfair attacks in media and he wanted to “level the playing field” with the proposed measure.
The bill’s provisions is clearly intended to protect politicians not press freedom and responsible journalism.
We maintain that public interest is best protected when debate on public issues is without fear even though at times it becomes unpleasant.
Public servants are not supposed to be “onion skinned” as long as the criticism is without malice or aired to protect the public good. Even error has its value.
What Pimentel and Puentevella wanted is remove the public-private distinction and lump together imputations of a crime (libel) with simple criticism of “any lapse in behavior in public or private life” or what would otherwise be considered “fair comment.”
Under the proposed law a journalist does not even have to be wrong to draw a right of reply claim. With the elections coming up, politicians will have a fiesta in our front pages if the bills are passed.
As I’ve said, the proposed measure also favors big media especially with the P50,000 or P200,000 fine the bills want to impose on occasions when it believes a demanded reply is unreasonable.
There is no lack of space for politicians to have their side aired. Actually they have been hogging the headlines. Even our codes of ethics provide a reasonable amount of fairness and balance.
Highlights of the bills
Authored by Senators Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Francis Escudero and Ramon Revilla Jr., Senate Bill No. 2150 states that: “all persons who are accused directly or indirectly of any crime or offense, or are criticized by innuendo, suggestion or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life shall have the right to reply to the charges published in newspapers and other publications as well as over radio, television, website or through any electrical device.”
It demands automatic publication of the reply, three days after it was delivered, in the “same space.” No editing is allowed, except for the removal of “libelous allegations.”
The House version, HB 3306, authored by Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella, calls for a maximum fine of up to P200,000 and imprisonment for not more than 30 days and the closure or suspension of the franchise of the publication or broadcast media outlet or station for 30 days for the fifth and succeeding offense.
Jose Torres Jr.
March 7, 2009