*Larita Kutsarita - n. see THE AUTHOR
*Spoonfuls - n. articles/dispatches/scribbles by Larita Kutsarita
(Background photo by Aiess Alonso)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kill [the] Bill

“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” This is according to Article III Sec. 4 of the Philippine Constitution.

While the above words remain to be ink on paper, other projected acts such as the Senate Bill No. 2150 and House Bill No. 3306 both propose “An Act Granting the Right of Reply and Providing Penalties in Violation Thereof.” They continue to push their way into implementation as they have now also penetrated the people’s common field of discourse and debate. And with these arguments among journalists, and lawmakers, and common citizens, the Right of Reply Bill’s (RORB) trip to Jerusalem a. k. a. “enactment” has ironically accelerated and is even drawing to a close—or so it seems—with the possibility of a presidential veto looming over the ordinary politician’s dream to be provided as much space to venerate oneself as that which is supposedly used for public opinion and criticism. “Of course, because the President will always protect the Constitution. If it curtails any press freedom, then, it will never get the support of the Palace,” Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez had said. Then again, this comes from the “palace” of a president who once said she would not run but ran anyway, and who once insisted that she did not cheat and only said “Hello” to Garci but admitted to have had a “lapse in judgment,” anyway.

Such ironies juxtapose themselves against more ironies, what with Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.—an ardent defender of civil rights whose reputation stems way, way back to the days of Martial Law—being the principal author of the Senate Bill. Meanwhile, back in the lower house, Bacolod City Rep. Monico Puentevella, having been president of the Negros Press Club, has been claiming that the Congress version of the song is a bit more “watered down.” The House of Representatives has proposed amendments to the bill, namely: 1) the penalty of imprisonment will no longer be imposed on media practitioners; 2) the originally proposed fines ranging from P20,000 to P200,00 are now cut down to the range of P10,000 to P100,000, making these persons P10 000 or P100 000 richer if at all they are “accused directly or indirectly of committing, having committed, or 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”; and perhaps the best part of the song will have to be the coda, that 3) the media outfits will no longer be closed, but that the franchises of radio stations or the operations of television stations and print medium outlets may be suspended only. This rendition of ambiguous terms—and probably euphemisms—and “lighter punishment” cannot help but make us wonder whether Puentevella and his chorus of representatives actually expect to hear “Thank you for the music,” or a standing ovation, or even a mere applause from journalists who, by the way, have increased in death tolls most recently.

The RORB’s race to the finish line has made itself a carousel of sorts, a merry-go-round of politicians passing the bill and eventually withdrawing support. Vice President Noli De Castro, a veteran broadcast journalist, rejects the RORB while he says that it is still a wakeup call for all erring journalists. Senator Loren Legarda, also a former journalist herself, said that she now realizes that “an untrammeled press is better than a press that is dictated by authority.” This rhetoric is further complemented by the “attack-and-retreat” course of action that was chosen by some of Legarda’s fellow aspiring presidentiables, i. e., Senators Francis Escudero, Mar Roxas, and Alan Peter Cayetano. And yet, Senator Francis Pangilinan still defends the RORB provided that a dialogue ensues between members of the Senate and media groups to come up with a possible “win-win solution,” if any, that is. Amidst all this carousel of sorts, perhaps the most disturbing and off-putting of all spins is that the RORB actually persistently points out that it remains the best way to deter the killings of journalists. Now, who’s in for the ride? Well, unless they mean that these killings or assassinations of journalists would not happen, or would be prevented from happening if only their killers or assassins were afforded equal space or air time for a right of reply, then perhaps that is what the RORB is trying to point out when it claims to be the journalists’ “amulet” against mortality.

Setting aside all these appeals—or insults, even—to the people’s common sense, it really boils down to the question, “Just how right is the Right of Reply?”

We believe that the RORB and its proponents stand not by the law but by their arrogant claims to setting press freedom straight once and for all by imposing higher authority over the Journalist’s Code of Ethics as well as other regulating bodies which preside over journalists such as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and even some other organizations which comprise them, with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), to name a few. These bill authors and signatories must go back to the basics: the role of Journalism in what is ideally a democracy, and that is, to inform the public of the truths that subsist in the society in which they live. And if these truths have to include public opinion and criticism, then the people—whether they are the subject of public scrutiny or simply those who scrutinize—are given the choice to express themselves freely. However, to insist that this freedom should be encompassed within a certain legislation—whose ambiguity and betrayal of the media’s self-regulation may function as an easy passage for self-serving “powers-that-be”—is indeed, to quote Vice President De Castro, “a wakeup call” for the media, not because they are “erring” but because these remaining journalists choose to deliver these truths.

Article III Sec. 4 of the Philippine Constitution states that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press….” While this is written, senators and congressmen are busy making spins out of the vagueness that is the RORB. A proposal must be made: Kill Bill before such an article in the Constitution remains, or even ceases to remain, what it dangerously is: merely ink on paper.

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