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That polite word—again

House Bill 4252 sports a grandiose title: “Freedom of Information and Transparency Act of 2011.” It crams a lot of—what’s the polite word for “BS”? Bovine ordure?

Drafted by Rep. Rodolfo W. Antonino, this bill would exhume remains of “right of reply” measures, rightly buried by the previous Congress.

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This Nueva Ecija lawmaker’s legislative horizons are constricted. On one end is his bill to convert Nueva Ecija’s San Leonardo-Peñaranda Road into a national road. An act to declaring Aug. 25 a special non-working public holiday in Gapan City is at the other end. HB 4252 is his initial foray into transparency issues.

“The State recognizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern,” Antonino begins in Section 2. He calls for a “policy of full public disclosure of all transactions, involving public interest… and a legal presumption in favor of access to information.”

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Section 14 directs agencies to upload, on their websites, contracts, rules, etc. That’s a practice Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad started early on.

Antonino’s bill overlaps with the Freedom of Information (FOI) measure that Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada and like-minded lawmakers filed last year. Still, HB 4252 appeals. Why? Because President Aquino oscillated from “cross-my-heart” support to “aw-shucks back pedaling” on FOI. He didn’t certify FOI as a priority measure last year. Malacañang since then crafted a rider that would create an office to screen requests for information.

That’s a “needless bureaucracy,” Tañada said. “A year is more than enough time to study the bill,” he told a Philippine Press Institute conference. A consolidated bill is before the Senate and the House. A clear signal from President Aquino that this bill is welcome hasn’t come.

“Corazon and Benigno Aquino Jr. stood without ifs ands or buts for transparency in government,” recalled “Viewpoint.” (Inquirer, 2/20/11) Over 42 days, Cory and family searched for their Ninoy imprisoned by the dictatorship in Laur. The President’s “waffling smudges the ‘draw-the-sand-line’ stance his parents took.”

HB 4252’s booby trap is stashed in Section 10: “Opportunity to Reply.” Aggrieved parties can demand that their replies to criticism be published “in the same space” of newspapers or the same program in broadcast. It directs that replies “be published or broadcast not later than three days.”

What if the editor or station manager fails or refuses? Another “mine” is wired into Section 16 on “Criminal Liability.”

For the first offense, an editor or station manager would be slapped with a P10,000 fine. For the second offense the penalty bolts to P50,000. There may be “incorrigibles” who commit a third offense. They’d be slammed with a fine of P100,000. “Closure or suspension … of the franchise of the publication or station for 30 days” would follow.

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Did Ferdinand Marcos ever vamoose? And do these provisions ring a bell?

They were snitched from former Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella’s House Bill 3306 and Senators Bong Revilla and Francis “Chiz” Escudero’s Senate Bill 2150. Both measures stipulated that a reply must be published or aired on the same page or program. They should be of the same length or time. No charges may be levied. Publish or air within 24 hours, demanded Puentevella. No, the senators said, make that three days.

Under previous measures, and now Antonino’s bill, an aggrieved Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo or “libeled” Abu Sayyaf could muscle aside editors—and dictate the contents of an editorial or a broadcast.

“Only dictatorships barge into newsrooms to usurp editorial functions,” a Cebu Citizens Press Council memo stressed. “A legislated right to reply operates as a command. This is prior restraint… Media cannot be told what to publish, nor can it be ordered what not to publish.”

“There are absolutes in our Bill of Rights,” Justice Hugo Black wrote. “They were put there by men who understood what words meant, and meant their prohibitions were absolute.”

The US Supreme Court in 1974 heard Florida candidate Pat Tornillo cite local right-to-reply statutes when he sued the Miami Herald. The statute fractured the Constitution’s ban on prior restraint, the Herald replied.

“Decisions on content, format and treatment of public issues and public officials—whether fair or unfair—constitute exercise of editorial control and judgment,” the court ruled. “Government may not force a newspaper to print copy which, in its journalistic discretion, it chooses to leave on the newsroom’s floor,” Justice Byron White wrote.

The Puno Supreme Court hewed closely to this constitutional tradition. It spiked Department of Justice and National Telecommunications Commission warnings against airing the “Hello, Garci” tapes of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This threat to gag constituted prior restraint. “It challenged the most exalted of all civil rights, the freedom of expression,” Puno wrote as ponente.

The least Antonino can do is to excise this smuggled rider from HB 4252. Let this exhumed bill stand or fall on its own merits.

At the Inquirer’s 25th anniversary rites, President Aquino recalled his parents battled for a free press. “A free media is indispensable, if a democracy is to function efficiently, if it is to be real,” he quoted Ninoy. “The people, who are sovereign, must be adequately informed all the time.”

Fine. But for President Aquino to spurn his parents’ sterling legacy by waffling, what is the polite word again? Bovine ordure?

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Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Department of Justice, Freedom of Information and Transparency Act of 2011, Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, Media, National Telecommunications Commission, Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada, Rep. Rodolfo W. Antonino, right of reply, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, Senate Bill 2150, Senator Bong Revilla
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