Filipino journalists reject ‘right of reply’ bills

I’ve joined more than a hundred journalists in signing a “unified statement” against bills seeking to impose a “right to reply” to the detriment of our press freedom and our free expression.

The proponents are hiding behind notions of “balance” and “fairness” to bamboozle the press into accepting a legislated form of terrorism. What is so detestable in the proposals is that Congress is imposing on publishers and journalists, and this would have a immediate and long-term impact to journalism practice, the media business and the politicians’ ceaseless drive for publicity. This would also have terrible effects on investigative reports and exposes, as journalists and the media might find a “right of reply” law a clear disincentive.

Bloggers, who arguably lead new media publishers, must also read House Bill 3306 and Senate Bill 2150. We must be able to examine all the possible repercussions of the law and whether we must agree with legislated codes of behavior that will government old, traditional media. As publishers, we ourselves cannot allow ourselves to be dictated by Congress on what to publish in our blogs and websites. 

The two statements below would show anyone the many terrible effects of the right to reply bills, once they are enacted into law.  It is the first statement, initiated by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and is being circulated as a petition, which I signed both as a journalist and blogger:

Unified Statement on Right of Reply Bill

The Right of Reply Bill is an ill-conceived piece of legislation that violates two of the most cherished freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, those of the press and of expression.

It is both unfortunate and ironic that the principal authors of the bill in the two chambers of Congress ought to have known better, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. having earned his reputation as a champion of civil rights and Bacolod Representative Monico Puentevella having been president of the Negros Press Club.

It is also clear, from the pronouncements of both lawmakers, that this bill is a product of the sorriest excuse for legislation – personal pique.

The House version of the bill, HB 3306, parrots the Senate’s SB 2150 except it would have the reply run a day after receipt instead of the three days the Senate grants, and seeks to impose heftier fines and the absence of self-regulation (in the case of block-timers) and sunset clauses.

Both bills state that “all persons…who are accused directly or indirectly of committing, having committed or intending to commit any crime or offense defined by law, 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 charges or criticisms published or printed in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or publications circulated commercially or for free, or aired or broadcast over radio, television, websites, or through any electronic devices.”

They also would mandate that these replies be “published or broadcast in the same space of the newspapers, magazine, newsletter or publication, or aired over the same program on radio, television, website or through any electronic device.”

The danger in the right of reply bill is that it would legislate what the media OUGHT to publish or air, while casting a chilling effect that could dissuade the more timorous from publishing or airing what they SHOULD.

The bills would free public officials, especially the corrupt – and they are legion – of accountability and give them carte blanche to force their lies on the suffering public.

As one article on the right of reply bill says, “It lumps together imputations of a crime with simple criticism ‘of any lapse in behavior in public or private life’ or what would otherwise be considered ‘fair comment.’ There is no judicial review. It does not differentiate direct and indirect criticism. It has been noted that under the proposed law a journalist does not even have to be in error to draw a right of reply claim.”

We would be the last to say that the Philippine media are without fault. Yes, we understand perfectly the frustration and anger of Pimentel and Puentevella over some media outlet’s refusal to air their sides on issues.

Alas, but 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.

We call on Senator Pimentel and Representative Puentevella to withdraw their bills.

We urge the media and the people to close ranks against the passage of this bill, to challenge it before the Supreme Court if it is passed, and, if even that fails, to defy it by refusing to comply.

No less than our freedoms are at stake. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) also released this statement, to which I also wholeheartedly agree and which I hope senators and congressmen would read:

Presence of Malice

SENATOR Aquilino Pimentel Jr.’s sponsorship of the Senate version of the Right of Reply bill has moved some media colleagues to assume absence of malice in its intentions, although they don’t seem to have given Rep. Monico Puentevella, the main sponsor of the House version, the same credit. CMFR will not comment on the intent of either of the two bills, their consequences being far more crucial than their aims, whether these are the stated or the real ones. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and purity of purpose does not excuse the dire consequences of uninformed legislation.

Whether we’re talking about the Senate’s version or that of the House, by compelling editors to print what they may very well not want to, the right of reply bill will undermine the editorial prerogative of deciding what to air or print that’s at the core of the exercise of press freedom in the newsroom. And yet neither bill even requires proof of the need for a reply in terms of unfair or unbalanced press treatment. It is enough that an accusation or an innuendo has been made—whether by a source or by a journalist is not even specified—for the group or individual that was the subject of a story or comment to demand time or space within 24 hours in the case of the House bill, or within three days in the case of the Senate version. It doesn’t matter how much care editors have taken to be fair by printing or airing the other side according to the professional and ethical standards of good journalism. No proof to the contrary is required, and the medium concerned must publish or air, at the risk of fines, and/or imprisonment and the cancellation of franchises, the so-called reply within the time specified by the bills.

Consider the consequences of this repugnant imposition. Once it becomes evident to various interests that they only need to claim that they have been accused of something or the other, or that an innuendo has been made about anything with which they’re associated, print, broadcast and online media will be flooded by demands to air or print replies, the consequence of refusal being fines that can reach as high as P200,000, and even prison terms and cancellations of franchises. No newspaper, broadcast station or online news site would risk incurring these penalties. And yet the cost of compliance would be a flood of so-called “replies” among which one can expect more than a fair amount of efforts at free and biased publicity, and at the cost of reporting on other issues of public interest, which limited air time and space will prevent airing or printing. CMFR not only predicts that if a right of reply bill is passed, 2010, an election year, will be especially problematic for the media in terms of dealing with demands for replies. It will also demean reporting on such crucial questions as candidates’ qualifications, platforms and programs of action by limiting the time and space that can be devoted to them. The media would be in a no-win situation either way. What’s worse is that so would the public.

It can be argued that the final version of the bill can require proof of the need for a reply, to which our own reply is that we won’t believe it even when we see it, the standards to which politicians will hold the press not being likely to be based on those professional and ethical values with which best practice is familiar. Any attempt to legislate best practice is indeed likely to go this route, the temptations of compelling the press to conform to standards other than its own being especially strong when coercion rather than self regulation decides the canons to which a press freedom regime must comply.

Consider finally the consequences to press development and freedom in our communities. The shoe string operations that characterize much of the media in the communities will either fall in line to conform with the demands of every group or individual likely to demand space or air time for replies, or else cease operations altogether in the face of the psychic and material costs of steering clear of fines and/or prison terms by reorienting their reporting and comment, and in the process surrendering their autonomy.

Right of reply bills have been correctly struck down as unconstitutional in the United States. They are no less unconstitutional in the Philippine setting, given not only Article III Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution but also in the light of that document’s clear recognition of the value of a free press in a society where the need for information is crucial to its well- being, future, and development.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.