By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
The Cebu City Council has invited a columnist of Sun.Star Superbalita (Cebu) to its next session on Wednesday, May 25. The councilors want the columnist to name the lawyer-councilor who allegedly abused his power.
Efren Lonzon, who writes once a week in the tabloid, said in his May 18, 2011 column titled “Abuso sa Konsehal” that the lawyer-councilor used his clout to have a bar, located near a school, closed for allowing minors to drink liquor and beer in the premises. The councilor later on came to co-own the said bar and had been tolerating the same violations.
There are three lawyers in the City Council: Sisinio Andales, said he was “shocked” and “stunned”; another, Edgardo Labella, said he didn’t own a bar; and the third, Jose Daluz III, said he wasn’t the one alluded to.
Labella said the City Council could just write a letter to Lonzon but Andales, Bebot Abellanosa, and Alvin Dizon wanted a face-to-face meeting.
But the City Council hasn’t summoned or subpoenaed Lonzon: Sun.Star used “summon”; Superbalita said “gipatawag” (called); Cebu Daily News said the City Council “challenged” Lonzon to identify the lawyer-councilor but didn’t say whether Lonzon should appear before the body.
The word “subpoena” was spotted in the record book of the City Council when its courier delivered the invitation letter, which included relevant minutes of the session. The letter was clear: it was an invitation.
Lonzon may refuse the invitation. Most journalists do. They’re accountable for what they write to their editors, their peers, and their public. But accountability doesn’t include being grilled by a government agency or a legislative body.
Unlike Congress, the court, or a quasi-judicial body, the City Council cannot summon a journalist under pain of contempt. Even the Senate and the House use the subpoena only when national security or interest is involved.
There’s a practical reason. The City Council can get the information by itself. It may ask the police or NBI to find out. It may write the journalist or his paper. It may state its view or clarify the issue publicly under right of reply, which the press upholds even without legislation. Or it may sue for civil or criminal damages.
On July 7, 2008, a news item in The Freeman prompted the Cebu Provincial Board to invite a reporter to explain a news story. The reporter wrote the PB an apology for “mistakenly interpreting” a COA report but didn’t appear before the board.
Submitting to the scrutiny of a government office or legislative body will allow it to examine the media process, which under the principle of self-regulation belongs only to editors and publishers and, in specific cases, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC).
Imagine a situation where an aggrieved head of office or member of a council or board could drag an “offending” journalist before it and make him tell how and why he wrote the story. Such a forum could be used to bully the journalist, which at times the House or Senate would do to its guests.
Would we like any city or town council, the provincial board, or a barangay council to exercise the same power? “This column is derogatory. Make the columnist appear before us. This news story accuses us of being abusive. Let the reporter come here and explain.”
A PB member in the 2008 incident said the reporter’s snub was a slur on the legislative body. Not so, cooler members who understood how media works prevailed.
The City Council, or any other government office, is not without remedies against any “sin” of the press, actual or perceived. But they don’t include an inquiry that could easily turn into an inquisition.