Sunday, March 1, 2009

'Right to Reply' a euphemism for privilege to manage news

It’s probably too much to compare it to “salvage,” that so positive spin on the blackest of arts, but the “Right to Reply” bill that legislators want to foist on Philippine media carries the same penchant for sweetening a truly onerous scheme.

This, after all, is a piece of legislation that presumes guilt rather than innocence. The “Right to Reply” bill also does away with courts as arbiters between those who feel aggrieved and their perceived tormentors.

If the authors of this piece of legislation have their way, any time the media receives a letter from them, demanding the printing, airing or broadcasting of even the most patently self-serving drivel, we are obliged to comply with their wishes.

Why? Because legislators say anyone who feels ignored by news gatherers and gatekeepers has the right to have his or her say when he or she wants to. It is a blanket reward for everyone who’s been portrayed in less than angelic light.

Under this measure, it matters not whether the subject deserves the harsh light of scrutiny. It matters not when a journalist tries to get two, or three, or four sides of an issue. It matters not when journalists print or air quotes from those who represent all these sides.

It only matters that one feels his or her explanations have not been given the weight he or she feels they deserve.

It certainly doesn’t matter if such explanations may be outright lies. But it matters when a news report notes, as all good news reports should, that certain claims are belied by facts -- because then the liar will demand his or her reward.

Are you feeling a bit surreal now? I am. Because the aggrieved doesn’t even have to present a straight-forward attack – innuendo is enough to bring down the wrath of gods who, of course, reserve the right to define the word at a time of their choosing.

I am furious; doubly so, because I am both a reporter and an editor.

As a reporter, I know how hard it is to get news sources to speak, unless it involves them preening over some good deed.

Now, I don’t mind it when they preen over good deeds. All news subjects approach media from a position of self-interest, which is why it is crucial to keep a critical stance even when -- especially when -- interviewing friends and people I may admire.

What I mind is this measure’s presumptuous message -- that a journalist cannot challenge the motives behind or critically examine the results of these supposed good deeds. That is, without being penalized by having to give up precious space and minutes to people who, truth be told, will try to evade our questions for as long a time as they can get away with.

I am not complaining about the hard life of a journalist. The reluctance of news sources to submit to a critical review is understandable.

Access to information – meaning official documents – is crucial to democracy and media groups are right to fight for this. Yet you don’t hear journalists calling for Congress to penalize politicians and bureaucrats who refuse to grant interviews, do you? Because that would be a violation of their freedom of expression; silence is as much a legitimate form of expression as ranting.

Then again, silence as an action has its set of consequences as does ranting. The latter can make you out as a liar or a fool. The former means a waiver on defence on the public stage.

What this measure aims for, however, is to penalize journalists for breaching the code of Omerta surrounding official wrongdoings – especially when he or she has worked hard to craft a fair story, because that is when a journalist provides the greatest impact.

It not only seeks to penalize media; it also seeks to attack the public by drowning them in a sea of garbage, much like what hackers do in a denial of services attack on websites. Both attacks depend on rogue access or entry points. The end result is the same – the public is cut off from important information it seeks.

Shorn of appeals for fairness and objectivity, this is what the measure seeks to do. It is just as onerous as other acts foisted on the nation earlier by Malacañg – which has decreed, for example, that all inquiries into official actions are malicious and treacherous to the interests of the Republic, unless the President says they’re not.

Bottom line: All journalists and those who hold some stake in the media should fight and fight hard in defence of the freedom to pursue the truth and roll this out within the ethical standards of the profession – as defined by the profession and not by a bunch of fat cats.

(The following is a column on the same issue, published in the Philippines Graphic on October 20, 2008.)

Wanting it both ways
Bacolod Representative Monico Puentebella, chief author of the House of Representatives version of the Right to Reply bill, plaintively explains his main motive for pushing the measure. He has long been victimized, says Puentebella, subjected to incessant trials by publicity. It is time he says, for victims of media harassment to say, "Enough!"

I do not doubt Puentebella’s pain. We hail from the same city. I know of the attacks against him; I hear them on radio and on some community cable news channels.

What Puentebella conveniently forgets to say is, most of the "newsmen" engaged in such practices are those whose publications or radio and cable TV programs are subsidized, if not paid in full, by politicians. And Puentebella is one of those politicians.

That’s not to detract from the news pollution foisted on Bacolod residents by the congressman’s political enemies. But it must be stressed that politician "victims" are only too willing to practice the same oppressive tactics so long as they’re not at the receiving end.

I’d be the first to say there is great room for improvement of media ethics. But Puentebella’s right to reply bill and the other version authored by Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. pose greater dangers than solutions. Both bills represent weapons as deadly as the guns used by the murderers of journalists.

They want replies to be published or aired on the same page or program; for the same length of time; within 24 hours (House version) to three days (Senate version). They want replies to be printed or aired word for word. They impose fines of up to P50,000 (Senate bill) and up to P200,000 plus a 30-day jail term in the House counterpart. (Note: since changed)

Any self-respecting media practitioner—and, contrary to what politicians and Malacañang say, most are—automatically chases the subject of a less than flattering news story. Investigative news reporters and their editors are particularly keen to follow this cardinal rule in journalism. In cases where the news breaks late in the day, editors wait till the last minute before deadline to get the side of the party accused. Newspapers have stopped the press or modified later editions to accommodate those replies—when replies are forthcoming.

Many times, they are not. I’ve had news subjects refusing to answer my calls, text messages and fax letters. Local executives have actually banned some reporters from their offices and instructed staff to refuse access. Are reporters to be penalized because officials shy away from accountability?

Puentebella’s patron saint, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is the best example.

She stonewalled before coming out with that lame "I am sorry" statement in the wake of the "Hello, Garci" scandal.

She pretended to be a denizen of some other planet in the days following Romulo Neri’s ZTE bribery testimony.

Just a few days ago, the organization of foreign correspondents in the country aborted a forum because Mrs. Arroyo demanded they send advance questions—and only questions about the economy. She has walked out of press conferences when reporters insisted on tackling burning political issues.

Is media then supposed to give up political reportage involving the Palace because its big boss disdains to reply to anything but the most obsequious questions?

Particularly distasteful is the thrust to take over media’s job by dictating when and how newsmakers are presented to the public.

So, issue breaks. News subject hides. News organizations are forced to come out without the other side. Then news subject demands same treatment in prominence and length of exposure and then gets to publish or air a self-serving statement—without being subjected to the give and take of an interview.

The last demand is a great recourse for cowards and the guilty. And the equal treatment clause totally ignores the realities of the here and now.

Imagine an expose on yet another tawdry, outrageous Palace deal. The President hides then sends a reply that is nothing more than a one-paragraph denial without details, which then segues into two pages of praise for her economic miracles.

The exposé gets banner treatment. She waits two days to consult with advisers and demands equal treatment. On that same day, something like September 11 happens or a new conflict breaks out in Mindanao that sends tens of thousands of folk fleeing their homes.

Are we supposed to ignore everything we’ve learned in journalism to save our skins? New organizations and media groups should and will challenge this blatantly unconstitutional measure.

Trial by publicity? Let’s not forget how Mrs. Arroyo presented Land Bank scandal whistleblower Acza Ramirez on television as a suspect! And she never apologized. G

1 comment:

The Gravelcat said...

Hello Inday, thank you for letting me quote your Facebook note about not agreeing with taxes on books. The blog entry is at