By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Proponents of the bill on compulsory right of reply (ROR) that the press has opposed since it was proposed in 1972 are trying a new tack: dangling attractions and using deceptive argument.
One, they add the ROR as “rider” in Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which media and the public have pressed the Aquino Administration to pass. In effect, they give the FOI if the press accepts the ROR embedded in it.
They also lure media with the “sunset law.” Under one version of the bill, ROR has a fixed period of five years, after which it loses life if media organizations “can show they can police their own ranks.”
Two, they argue right of reply is already existing, specifically in Fair Election Act (Republic Act #9006 of 2000), and the press hasn’t complained about it and no lawsuit is known to have been filed involving the said law. Why does media gripe now, 12 years after the law’s birth, although over an expanded and generalized version?
Quid pro quo
The “one-thing-in-return-for-another” offer (FOI for ROR) won’t be right or fair. Media won’t accept ROR, which the Constitution prohibits, in exchange for FOI, which the Constitution guarantees.
ROR violates the Constitution because it is prior restraint: news sources, mostly public figures, in effect would dictate editorial content and judgment. It impinges on press freedom because control of what editors and news managers print or broadcast is impaired by the proposed law’s demands on use of media space or time.
FOI, on the other hand, promotes government transparency and access to public information, which media must have as a matter of right. They’ll give us FOI but we must accept ROR? Surely, a bad deal, which media can’t accept without abdicating rights in the Constitution.
The swap comes in the form of a “rider,” which in legislative business is unrelated to the subject and often used for sneaking in an unwanted provision.
Another bait, the proposed “sunset law,” which provides for the law’s death in five years, assumes the legislature is some disciplinarian that can restrain the press with the ROR, along with the inducement that good behavior will take off the cuffs.
How in the world will Congress know media is already a good boy: when the bill’s sponsors certify they have been spared media criticisms during that period? A devious way to erode press freedom.
Media consumers, including public officials and other news sources, have recourse against an “offensive” newspaper or broadcast station. They may sue civilly and criminally.
There are enough laws that provide redress for defamation, obscenity, or intrusion. There are measures that media themselves have adopted and practiced, including, yes, right of reply.
Lest its public be confused, the press is not against ROR. What media abhors is legislated ROR, violation of which would carry the penalty of imprisonment. Penalty for violation of ROR under the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa #881) of 1985, considered a serious election offense, slaps a jail term of one year to six years.
The journalist is oppressed enough with libel complaints that can imprison him even before he’s convicted or harass him when those are filed hundreds of miles away from his home or office. A lawsuit for violation of ROR can be used on the simpler pretext that a reply wasn’t published or didn’t follow the law’s requirements on length and prominence of display.
That ROR in the Omnibus Election Code has not stirred controversy maybe because (a) it is just a two-sentence provision in a lengthy law, which may have escaped notice when it was passed; (b) candidates have no time or inclination to annoy media during an election season; or (c) they are content with the airing of their side.
But that doesn’t mean the election ROR is acceptable to media. In a number of forums, including those held by Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), media managers said they’d contest constitutionality of the law.
Right-of-reply, as upheld by journalists on their own, doesn’t need one more draconian law. If at times a news outlet fails to grant the right when deserved, mechanisms exist within the organization and the industry to enforce it and there are already laws to provide redress.