Advocate’s Overview: Right to reply bill: an affront to press freedom


By ARTHUR L. ALLAD-IW

The Baguio-Benguet chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines was busy these past two weeks. On Monday, October 20, the NUJP officers and council appeared before the sala of Executive Judge Edilberto Claravall, not for any cases but for us to take our oath to defend “press freedom without any reservations.” A brief meeting for plans was done afterwards.

On Wednesday, October 29, we had a media training on human rights and poverty reporting at the Inglay’s Restaurant in La Trinidad. The activity was to hone our skills in reporting human rights and poverty, two issues that are uninteresting to some of our fellow journalists. The training was fruitful and the challenge was left for the participants to come out with stories on the ugly and varied faces of poverty and human rights in the region. Stories may be sent to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

On the other hand, as if secretly, the Philippine Senate came up with a legislation that greatly affects press freedom. If passed on third reading the right of reply bill, from the title alone, it seems that this bill is good in relation to the freedom of the press and of expression. But this is more a threat to the said basic rights instituted in the Bill of Rights of our fundamental law.

The Senate Bill No. 2150 is entitled an act granting the right to reply and providing penalties for violation thereof. In its Section 1, it states that all persons, whether natural or juridical, who are accused directly or indirectly of committing or of intending to commit any crime or offense defined by law or are criticized by innuendo, suggestion or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life shall have the right to reply to any charges published or printed in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or publications circulated commercially or for free, or to criticisms aired or broadcast over radio, television, websites, or through any electronic device.

If approved into law, the bill, including its counterpart House Bill 1001, would systematically institutionalize the transgression of our fundamental freedoms of the press and of expression.

Freedoms of the press and of expression are among the rights contained in the Bill of Rights of our constitution. The Bill of Rights is generally self-executory, meaning the state does not need any legislation before these rights can be exercised. Their mere institution in the Bill of Rights makes them self-executory and the state must primarily protect it. Congress can however adopt a law for the penalization of the violations of these rights like what they (Congress) did when they passed a law that would penalize any person, particularly the police and military, who violate the rights of a person under custodial investigation, like the violation of his rights to counses and to remain silent which entails heavy penalty and fine by the said law.

However, in the case of the right to reply, it does, in itself, penalize the exercise of these freedoms of expression and of the press. It imposes on the editor-in-chief, publisher or station manager, or owner of the broadcast medium to provide the same space and air time for the reply on the charges published or aired. It sanctions a penalty up to P 50,000.00, and allows to file other appropriate case or cases against them. If this is approved into law, it can be questioned in court for it is patently unconstitutional. It transgresses the freedoms of the press and of expression. Like water cannot flow higher than the spring it comes from. In this case, the bill (a law, if passed) cannot alter the rights under the constitution, particularly the bill of rights.

An example, when a story is made on any person and it was published or printed, or aired (including in website), the person is granted the right to reply under SB No. 2150. If the bill is passed into law, it will make the following illegal: writing a story of an accused (but of course the story would not be jeopardized), or when you write an article based from the police blotter which is the journalist’ beat, or when you write an article based on an a person’s actual act of committing a crime but was the subject of a citizens’ arrest.

When a journalist criticizes a person by innuendo, made suggestion or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life, then the latter is entitled to a right of reply under this bill. Under the present system, a columnist or host in a talk show can criticize any person (or make suggestion) as a part of the exercise of their press freedom. Under this bill however, it violates press freedom as it interferes with contents. It dictates what are not to be reported and what are to be reported. It therefore transgresses the journalists’ constitutionally-provided right to provide information of public interest.

The penalty is also harsh and inhuman. The head of a media institution who fails or refuses to broadcast or publish the reply would be penalized a maximum amount of P50,000.00. The reply, which is mandatory to be printed or aired, should also occupy the same space or air time of the media outlet. The penalty maybe considered cheap if we are to talk about big media networks. But Philippine reality shows that we have more of the smaller or struggling media institutions.

If the penalty would be imposed and the same space or air time should be followed, these small media institutions would close shop. Their closure would be denial of the publics’-interest for information brought by these grassroots media institutions. Remember that it is the small media institutions that have the courage to raise the people’s issues. Instead of using these spaces or air time to earn a bit to subsidize their (media) expenses, it is taken by law for free.

What is amusing with the bill is its sunset clause. If this bill will be passed into law, it will be effective for seven years. It would lapse though after that seven years. If it would be approved by this present congress, then journalists cannot criticize the personalities or report any issues against personalities who have plans in the 2010 and the elections within these seven years. They would be afraid on the spaces and air time that would taken for free. Or they (media) are afraid of the penalty of a maximum of P 50,000.00. The bill is a self-serving for these politicians. And I am wondering why Senator Nene Pimentel and Chiz Escudero from the opposition co-sponsored this bill which if approved is patently unconstitutional and anti-press freedom.

Every working journalist, organization and advocate must read and come up with critique on this bill. The Senate already passed it in its third reading and the House would surely come up with its approved version. Let us exercise our press freedom by campaigning for the non-approval of this bill. And let us urge these Senators should utilize the public funds where it is due. Not for this non-sense press legislation. #

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