Bum Weed”

by Juan L. Mercado


Like the proverbial mala yerba, proposals to clamp mandatory “right of  reply” ( RoR )  rules on media keep cropping up. The latest  “bum weed” is Commission on Elections Resolution 9615. 

“Candidates aggrieved  by press reports can demand to have their side published in the same prominence or in the same time slot as the first statement”,  says  this implementing rule for the “Fair Elections Practices Act.”.

Kapisanan ng Broadcaster ng Pilipinas, National Union of Journalists, Cebu Citizen’s Press Council, among others, slammed  stitching  RoR provisions into rules for the May 13 elections.  If  need be, they’ll  challenge this rule before the Supreme Court .

The RoR resolution  is “not Comelec’s invention” , bristled  Comelec Chairman Sixto Brilliantes:  “It is in the Constitution.”  Will  Brillantes flag that  at  lnquirer’s editors and direct: Stand aside. Comelec now  decides what  font  be used for  RoR gripes, PDI pages where  they must  appear, plus  frequency. Or else?

Commissioners  Rene Sarmiento and Grace Padaca are cut from a decent bolt  too. Will  they shuck  editorial  prerogatives and order ABS-CBN or GMA Network to air  RoRs. Prime time or graveyard shift?   When do  Comelec regional directors  stride into newsrooms of, say  Mindanao Cross in Cotabato,  Cebu Daily News to Mabuhay in  Pampanga, to armtwist  publication of  RoR  gripes?.

We’ve  not  discussed Resolution 9615  with editors and  broadcast executives. But  our aging bones say , if  Birillantes et al  surface at newsrooms, they’ll be politely —  but firmly — ushered out  the door.  That  rebuff  wouldn’t just  well up  from bile.

The  basis  is  RoR’s track record of  serial rejection.  In the Inquirer of  01 June 2009  and 18 Nov. 2012, constitutional scholar Joaquin Bernas called attention  the over-arching  1974  US  Supreme  Court  decision on  Miami Herald v. Tornillo.

“We follow American tradition in speech jurisdiction”, Fr. Bernas wrote. The US  Supreme Court  unanimously  (9-0) decision struck down Florida’s  RoR right statute  as an infringement of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press. That “can be said about  right of reply bills here.”

Candidate  Pat  Tornillo demanded  Miami Herald print his reply to scathing Herald criticism. A 1913  Florida  law  required a newspaper to provide free reply space to any candidate whose personal character or official record the newspaper  assailed. Miami  Herald refused, so Tornillo  sued.

(Senators Aqulino Pimentel, Bong Revilla Jr. and  Francis Escudero with  Rep. Monico Puentebella cloned the Florida RoR in House Bill 3306 and Senate Bill 2150. Congress junked both. )

A “responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal,”  the Court said. ” But press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and like many other virtues it cannot be legislated”. An RoR a right of reply could impose intolerable financial costs.  It’d  force newspapers to omit material they wished to publish to make room for replies. Worse, it could spur papers to avoid publishing “anything that might trigger a reply, and constitute an unwarranted intrusion into the editorial process”.

The power of a privately owned paper  is bounded by only two factors: (1)  Acceptance of a sufficient number of readers—and hence advertisers—to assure financial success; and (2)  journalistic integrity of its editors and publishers “The clear implication is any compulsion to publish that which ‘reason’ tells them should not be published is unconstitutional.”

“The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to the limitations on the size and content of the paper and treatment of public issues and officials  —   whether fair or unfair —  constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgement”, Chief Justice Warren Burger  wrote.

“Government may not force a newspaper to print copy which, in it’s journalistic discretion, it chooses to leave on the newsrooms floor”, Justice Byron White added  in a concurring opinion.

“The press has no quarrel with fairness   (But) “only dictatorships barge into newsrooms to usurp editorial functions”, Cebu Citizens Press Council  CPC  stressed in  a position paper  (14 December 2007), then  bucking House Bill 3306 and Senate Bill 2150. 

However  legislated  RoR  “operates as a command. (It resembles) a statute forbidding the newspaper to publish specified matter,” added the Cebu Media Legal Aid group.   “This is prior restraint.  If media can not be told what to publish, it  can not be told what not to publish.” 

Like  proverbial mala yerba, RoRs  sprouted again  at  the 15th Congress to bedevil the  Freedom of  Information bill.   Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino  snucked an RoR  into FOI as a rider. Approved by the Senate,  FOI  bogged down  in the House, abetted by President Benigno Aquino’s  “cartwheels”.

From  election crusader for FOI, P-Noy back pedaled  into stolid silence as Malacanang neophyte, then  extended  grudging  support —  only to relapse  into  stolid indifference. It  spurns  his parents stance on a free press.

“It is true you cannot eat freedom and you cannot power machinery with democracy,” Corazon Aquino said. “But then neither can political prisoners turn on the light in the cells of a dictatorship.”  Benigno Jr.  began his journey towards martyrdom  as a 17-year old journalist. 

Congress adjourns this week. An  FOI in extremis will go the way  President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ensured  FOI’s  demise by getting his supporters to skip the 14th Congress’ closing day session.  Would PNoy and Glo will  then be uneasy peas in a similar  yerba even as we begin to beat back Resolution 9615?

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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