Good Cop, Bad Cop

by Juan L. Mercado

Congress’ bid  to legislate “right to reply”  kicked  the  proverbial  hornet’s  nest  Filipino  balikbayans,  theology professors  to online editors  skewered House Bill 3306  and Senate Bill  2150.

These bills shred  liberty of  expression, Inquirer asserted   Philippine Press Institute,  Kapisanan  ng mga  Brodkasters  and other groups protested. So has the Commission on Human Rights.  Compulsory replies, they stress, is verboten “prior restraint.”. 

Author Sen Aquilino  Pimentel dug in. “Show  me  reasoned  arguments for withdrawing  this measure.” This assumes monopoly on reason. And he dumps burden of proof on the press.  

“Any prior restraint… must hurdle a high barrier,” Justice Antonio Carpio wrote in his tightly-reasoned concurring opinion for the National Telecommunications case (GR No 168338).  “Such prior restraint is presumed unconstitutional. (And) government bears a heavy burden  of proving   constitutionally of such restraint.”

Thus, authors like Sen. Francisco Escudero withdrew support. :”We recognize editorial functions are privately exercised prerogatives,” Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara wrote.

Cebu Citizens  PressCouncil  filed a carefully-reasoned  protest  a full year before today’s quagmire. Anchor “Che-Che” Lazaro fretted these bills violated “prior restraint”  in  ABS-CBN’s “Media In Focus” program.last November. Did anybody listen? 

From New Mexico,  retired  professor  Antonio  Marquez  cautions: “Be wary of  good-cop-bad-cop drills.  President Arroyo pledged a veto. She’s the good cop.  Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales backs the bill.  He’s the bad cop. In the end, all would gag the press — for political survival.”

“Test this bill in specific cases.  Some 193 officials ran off with fertilizer plunder grants.  Bill author  Monico  Puentebella  got  P5-mllion. Would the 192 get equal space or airtime as Puentebella?”

On Internet,  “legislated right of  reply  would be more  preposterous, “ writes  Nini  Cabaero, Sun Star’s  online editor.

“A website  is venue for  online journalism. It’s updated several times a day as news develops.   Or it can be removed at will”. If  RoR  bills  became law,  aggrieved parties – say those zapped  for  ZTE broadband scams or  collusion in  World Bank road bids  – can shape web pages, based on their grievances, not the news. 

Do  their  replies  stay in the  webpage one minute? Quarter of an hour?  As long as the offending  story  stayed on said page?

“What is adequate compliance?”  

“News  can break at  anytime,“  Cabaero notes. What if  a major  story  happens, say the  President  steps down?  Web  pages would  be immediately recast. That’s the character of  internet.  Today, editors have the  prerogative to recast. . Pimental  &  Co.would  muscle aside editors and decide. .

Website journalists are governed by the same principles” imposed on print and tv  journalists,  she wrote  We  “work in a  continuous 24/7 cycle of news assessment. Articles are uploaded, moved, or deleted”.  Online editors make judgement  calls  based on assessment  of events and  news values. They do not act on whim, certainly not on  chip-on-their-shoulders complaints..

Internet’s  unique  character  makes  it possible for websites to dodge  RoR laws,  Cabaero notes.. Posted in one minute, a reply can be removed the next. Will it stay only for as long as the source views it?   Or when editors say enough?. We’d see a cat-and-mouse game emerge.. “It could come to that if  the right of reply bill became  law”.

“Media self-regulation is an innovative approach to democracy,” writes Fr. Aloysius  Cartagenas of Seminario  Mayor de San Carlos in  Cebu. Like a “fourth branch” alongside the legislative, executive and judiciary branches, media regulates political power by acting as public watchdog and purveyor of information.

This structure is changing due to “market forces” and burgeoning strength of “civil society”. Media must “ensure a common public sphere where everybody can communicate in dialogue.” In this new role, masters of  press freedom  are no longer the media but the citizens.

Media’s evolving role is advocate and animator of the right to communicate.” From simple objective reporters, media become s moderators supporting citizen participation and working as extensions of democracy.

“In this light, self-regulation, not a state legislative intervention, is the answer as to how to ensure the proper role of media… in a democratizing society. “It disturbs right order to take from the media what they can accomplish by their own initiative.” 

Those who hold reins of power, in governance and in markets, who opt  not to  serve the common good, feel threatened. “That fear, rather than lack of understanding, appears to be the root to legislate the right to reply.”

Congressmen like Manila’s Bienvenido Abante, meanwhile, dangle sops. In exchange for RoR bills, Congress could allow media to draft implementing rules. That’s permitting the press to choose the rope to hang itself with.

We could decriminalize libel?, offers  Speaker Prospero Nograles.That’s a different  banana. It can stand or fall on it’s own merits. But for RoR, the bottom line is: Media has no power or right to swap a constitutional shield for concessions.  If that privilege is peddled, the press sell out it’s very soul, like Faustus….

“I  won’t  back down”, Pimentel  snaps. Me Tarzan?  The press will have no choice but also to stand fast. We’d make the most unlikely Tarzans. .

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