There’s the Rub

‘Right’ of reply: It’s not a right, it’s oppression

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I almost fell out of my chair when I read it. I read it again to make sure I had not made a mistake from reading a little too fast. That was P-Noy saying, “The same spirit hews closely to our position on the issue of right of reply. As the Bible says, the truth shall set you free. If two sides of a story are reported, if the details of every piece of news are accurate and the freedom of all Filipinos to form their own opinion is valued, then a journalist has nothing to worry about.”

That’s not unlike saying, which in fact the custodians of martial law did say, that if people were innocent then they had nothing to fear from the antidefamation laws, the rumor-mongering laws and the antisubversion laws. Indeed, if people were law-abiding and upright and civic-minded, then they had nothing to fear from martial law itself.

The “right” of reply is tyrannical. It has no business being in the Freedom of Information bill, which almost assures its doom. It’s like the “parity rights” the United States tacked on to the release of war-damage payments to us after the War. If we wanted the war-damage payments, we had to agree to “parity rights,” which gave Americans the same privileges as Filipinos to exploit the country. It’s the same thing here: If we want freedom of information, or the right to have access to official documents, particularly those of an incriminating nature, we have to agree to “right” of reply, which gives public officials time or space in media to answer perceived slights or wrongful reporting.

We fell prey to the first, we may not to the second.

The FOI should be passed as a matter of course, the way the war-damage payments should have been released as a matter of course. The “right” of reply, like parity rights, should not. The one is laudable, the other damnable.

It’s all very well that media should practice balance and objectivity and judiciousness. It’s all very well that media should strive for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But who’s to say they have or haven’t? P-Noy himself hasn’t said anything, or done anything, that the Arroyo camp or the Left has found truthful. Everything he has said they’ve called self-serving, misleading and deceitful. Everything he has done they’ve called unfair, vengeful and oppressive. Depends on who’s making the determination.

Which is what makes the “right” of reply not unlike the censorship of martial law. Which makes the defense that if you’re truthful you’ve got nothing to fear from the “right” of reply not unlike the defense that if you’re innocent you’ve got nothing to fear from martial law’s antisubversion laws. It places the determination in the hands of public officials, the one group of people who are bound to see slight or slander in anything negative said about them.

Even more oppressively, it penalizes the presumably offending newspaper or radio or TV station with having to part with part of its airtime and print (or online) space to accommodate the public officials’ prickly defense of themselves. That is an egregious violation of the right—and it is a right, enshrined in the Constitution—of newspapers, radio and TV stations to determine, control and shape their editorial content. That is a transgression of the freedom of the press.

I grant that media can be, and have often been, abusive. I grant that media can be, and have often been unfair. “Right” of reply doesn’t make things better, it makes them worse. It solves nothing, it merely adds to the problem.

Public officials do not lack for means, opportunity and power to reply to reports they deem unfair, untruthful and abusive. For one, they can always air their side, their replies, retorts, and rambling grumblings, in subsequent stories about the issues, exposés and scandals. They are normally given the opportunity to. That is if they do not write letters to the editor, which are routinely printed and aired in the more reputable newspapers and TV stations.

They do not lack the means, opportunity and power to castigate the offending reporters, commentators and news broadcasters in their appearances as guest speakers in their anniversaries and other celebrations. P-Noy certainly does not.

Far more importantly, as Juan Ponce Enrile showed only recently, senators and congressmen do not lack for something far more powerful than reportage. That is the privilege speech. Enrile scoffed at the academicians and netizens for threatening to sue Tito Sotto for plagiarism, saying they forget, or do not know, that legislators may not be prosecuted for something they say during the privilege hour. They can malign you or insult you or damn you, but they may not be reproached or reprimanded or dragged to the courts. Certainly, you may not have any right or privilege to reply to them. The power is absolute.

Enrile justified this as necessary so the legislators could perform their task of exposing and correcting various ills in society. “That is why the Constitution grants Congress immunity for what they say inside the halls of Congress.”

So what in God’s name do they need “right” of reply for?

The press does not enjoy anything near the privilege speech. You can always reply to the press even within the press itself, without making it compulsory. Between senators and congressmen who are there to make laws, who harbor the vested interest of wanting to get reelected, and reporters and commentators who are there to inform, and who (except for the corrupt, who arguably fester in media’s pores) can look at things more impartially, who better to trust to expose and correct the various ills of society?

Excise the “right” of reply like a tumor from the FOI.

It’s not a right, it’s oppression.

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