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Attacking Press Freedom while "enhancing" it

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Certified by President Benigno Aquino III as a priority bill last January, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act will be among those discussed by the House of Representatives when Congress re-convenes on May 7, or, significantly enough, four days after Press Freedom Day is celebrated all over the world.

Malacañang has forwarded a version of the bill that, while not perfect, is generally acceptable to the media and civil society groups that have been working for the passage of an FOI act since the 1990s. The length of time it has taken for the country to reach this point has become an embarrassment in the world community of democracies, the Philippines being among the worst laggards in the passage of an FOI law.

It is also the only country among the members of the steering committee of the US and Brazilian initiative, the Open Government Partnership, without an FOI law.

There are other FOI bills in Congress that will mostly likely be discussed, opening up the process to the consideration of provisions in those other bills that could be incorporated in the reconciled and consolidated bill. The most troublesome of these provisions involves the right of reply.

The FOI bill filed by Nueva Ecija Congressman Rodolfo Antonino makes the right of reply of public officials mandatory for the media. Before Congress adjourned, and after the House Committee on Public Information adopted the Malacañang version, Antonino vowed to fight for the provision in order to prevent, he said, media abuse of the right to information once an FOI bill is passed.

Another Congressman, Rep. Pedro Romualdo of Camiguin, announced at about the same time that he would continue to press for approval of House Bill 117 which would compel the media to open their pages (in the case of publications) and airtime (in the case of broadcast programs) to the right of reply. Romualdo is also best remembered as the congressman who asked for a roll call on the last day of the 14th Congress in 2010 when the FOI bill was about to be considered, his call resulting in a finding of lack of quorum which prevented the passage of the bill.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), a coalition of media and media advocacy organizations founded to address the killing of journalists and to defend journalists under threat, has repeatedly made known its objections to any right of reply (ROR) law, or, for that matter, any ROR provision concealed in any other law.

Among the reasons why FFFJ and other media and journalists’ groups including the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) oppose an ROR law is that it would not only undermine the editorial prerogative to decide what to publish, which is at the heart of editorial independence; it would also make unlimited newspaper pages and broadcast airtime available to those who only have to claim to have been denied their right of reply, thus limiting the amount of media space and time available for relevant reports on public issues.

The right of reply is in the first place already part of the professional and ethical responsibilities of the press, whether in print, online or broadcast. It is inherent in the ethical imperative of fairness, which mandates the presentation of all sides in a controversy. The principal function of the Philippine Press Institute’s Press Council is in fact to guarantee the right of reply. If that right has not always been respected in practice by some journalists, it is not a justification for subjecting ALL media organizations to a constraint on their freedom simply because of the failings of a few. Enshrining in law the punishment of all for the errors of a few is not only unreasonable. It is also dangerous, since it would infringe on a freedom vital to the health of a democracy.

Self-regulation is a principle vigorously honored in practice by a significant number of the major media agencies in the Philippines. In truth, apart from the Philippine Press Institute’s Press Council, the national association of broadcasters, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) has a Standards Authority that receives, reviews, and passes judgment on complaints of alleged misdemeanor by its member broadcasters and agencies. Out of the 173 complaints it has received from 2009 to present, the KBP Standards Authority has resolved and acted upon 127 cases (or 73.41 percent of total cases filed).
If Representatives Antonino and Romualdo are genuinely moved by fears of media abuse once an FOI bill is passed, FFFJ would like to remind them and other lawmakers that the abuse of any right is a risk in a democracy, the alternative absence of all risk being the denial of that right. However, there are also means in the self-regulatory regime in the Philippine press and media—which include, among others, mechanisms for the filing of complaints and the regular monitoring of media performance—rather than the use of the coercive power of the law to prevent such abuse.

It is ironic that Representative Antonino should make the passage of an FOI act as part of the need to enhance press freedom, the vehicle at the same time for its infringement.

FFFJ will continue to assist in building consensus on supporting mechanisms for airing complaints and grievances against the press as its members have helped in the past to establish and strengthen press councils in the regions.

But in observance of World Press Freedom Day, FFFJ also calls on all stakeholders of democracy to demand that the 15th Congress finally fulfill one of the basic requirements of democracy: a government that grants all citizens the freedom to access and disseminate information on those matters that concern them as free men and women.

by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists




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