A twisted sense of equity

Sat, 03/10/2007 - 00:00

reprinted from the author's book, "Worse Than Free: Essays on Journalism Ethics and Other Media Issues"

June 14, 2002

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. has introduced a bill that in effect tells the media: If you not only fail to publish the reply of someone you have criticized, but fail to publish it in a certain form, in a certain slot, and within a certain time, you shall be fined. And if you do it too often you shall be both fined and thrown in jail.

That, proclaims Pimentel, "enables all persons to equitably exercise the right of reply."

A senator, a person of power and influence and therefore fair game for the media, lumping himself with the masses of far lesser mortals, whose chances of landing in the news, and consequently benefiting from his bill, are absolutely nothing compared to his? What twisted sense of equity! And to further it, Pimentel arbitrarily takes some of the words of two men who happen to be too dead themselves to be able to reply.

In the explanatory note prefacing his bill, Pimentel first quotes the English writer Anyone who feels aggrieved by the media can go to court for satisfaction, which may come in a public apology, money, or the imprisonment of the particular offenders or in all three ways.George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four): "In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behavior is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any other system of law."

Then, he either paraphrases or indirectly quotes Justice Malcolm (presumably George Malcolm, first dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law) - no quotation marks appear in the citation, which says: "... public opinion should be the constant source of liberty and democracy rising superior to any official, or set of officials, to the Chief Executive, to the Legislature, to the Judiciary. The value placed on public opinion is enshrined in our Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, the interest of society demands not merely the right to express one's thoughts, but the right to an educated and enlightened public opinion. Essential to the protection of the freedom of expression is the promotion of full discussion of public affairs. The freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution necessarily embraces a correlative right of reply, which is the right to reply to every form of expression protected under the Constitution, especially to accusations or criticisms published or aired through the mass media."

It rather strains my sense of logic that, from those premises, Pimentel should leap to the conclusion that there is no law governing the behavior of the media, particularly toward the right of reply, and that the right to an educated and enlightened public opinion would be reinforced, if not guaranteed, by a law penalizing any media organization that fails to publish the reply of anyone it has criticized, as if by simply opening his mouth truth and wisdom would flow from it.

In a democracy, the equation of competing rights in the relationship between the media and the rest of the society is so basic it has long been established in law, in tradition, and in the self-correcting mechanisms natural to a free society and market. The media will not be told what to say or how to say it or when. They will rise and fall on their own.

On the other hand, anyone who feels aggrieved by the media can go to court for satisfaction, which may come in a public apology, money, or the imprisonment of the particular offenders or in all three ways. If he does not want to be bothered with litigation, or his case is not serious enough for the court to be bothered with, and his right of reply has been denied by the offending media organization, he can do any or all of these things:

1. Go to other media organizations on the chance that they are moved, if not by genuine professional interest, by the spirit of competition. Whatever is ideally made of media power, it is necessarily dispersed, blunted by media's diversity of interests, their multiplicity of ownership, and their being naturally in competition with one another.

2. Try the media-watching organizations or the media's self-policing councils. The Philippine Press Council sanctions by public exposure any national newspaper that precisely denies the right of reply.

3. Publish his case himself, say, in a sort of tract for economy or on the Net for quick and wide distribution additionally.

He should be able to devise yet other ways if he were imaginative enough. But if he happens to be a senator, he needs little imagination. He has the great advantage of his office. He can seize the floor of the Senate anytime and say what he pleases and not be held liable for it. He can double, as in fact some of his colleagues do, as a newspaper columnist or broadcast commentator and escape ethical sanctions. And, while no law may be passed abridging press freedom, he can propose one, as Pimentel has done, if only to menace the media with the possibility Congress might be tricked into passing it and the courts.

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