Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is the Right of Reply Bill (RORB) a threat to press freedom in the Philippines? (Part 1)

(The writer is a journalist of the other sort in the court of last resort.)
While news media organizations were busy covering and putting out reports on various stories about corruption in government, a bill that journalists say may curtail press freedom was making its way towards becoming a law.

I was in the middle of writing a press statement regarding the 23rd EDSA People Power Uprising when Senator Aquilino Pimentel took the floor of the Senate's Session Hall to issue his clarifications regarding the Right to/of Reply Bill.  

My first reactions was, "What!?"

I was rather suprised to learn just then that such a bill had apparently been in existence for quite some time and was already on third and final reading.  At this stage, if there is any need to reconcile anything, a bicmeral meeting will be held and once things are resolved, the bill will be sent for signing into law by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Before we enter into what will certainly be an interesting debate, it is best to look at the proposed law first.

Senate Bill 1178 was first filed Filed on July 4, 2007 and has nine sections.  

Section 1 defines the right to reply; sections 2 to 6 prescribe the manner in which replies to adverse reports or opinions will be carried out; section 7 prescribes a penalties for violating the right to reply; section 8 states that other legal courses of action may be undertaken together with actions prescribed in the Right to Reply bill; and 9 states its effectivity.

Now, here are the sections in detail and a short comment on each:
SECTION 1. Right of reply. -All persons natural or juridical who are accused direcily or indirectly of committing, having committed or of 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 shall have the right to reply to the charges published or printed in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or publications circulated commercially or for free, or criticisms aired or broadcast over radio, television, websites, or through any electronic device.
This section reflects what is already stated in the Philippine Press Institute's Journalist Code of Ethics:
(Paragraph 1)
I shall scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essentialfacts nor to distort the truth by omission or improper emphasis.  I recognize the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly.
(Paragraph 4)
I shall refrain from writing reports which will adversely affect a private reputation unless the public interest justifies it. At the same time, I shall fight vigorously for public access to information, as provided for in the Constitution.
(Paragraph 7)
I shall not, in any manner, ridicule, cast aspersions on, or degrade any person by reasonof sex, creed, religious belief, political conviction, cultural and ethnic origin.
(Paragraph 8)
I shall presume persons accused of crime of being innocent until proven otherwise. Ishall exercise caution in publishing names of minors and women involved in criminalcases so that theymay not unjustly lose their standing in society.

This is also found in KBP Broadcast Code:


6.a. Interviews must be presented in the proper context. Replies of interviewees to questions must not be edited or editorialized in a way that would distort their intended meaning. (S)


Sec. 1. Personal attacks, that is, attacks on the honesty, integrity, or personal qualities of an identified person, institution or group1, on matters that have
no bearing on the public interest are prohibited. (G)

Sec. 2. Programs intended to malign, unfairly criticize or attack a person, natural or juridical, are prohibited.(G)

Sec. 3. Personal attacks against fellow broadcasters are prohibited. (G)

Sec. 4. When personal attacks against any person, institution or group are aired, that person, institution or group shall be given a fair opportunity to reply immediately in the same program, if possible, or at the earliest opportunity. If not, the opportunity to reply should be given in any other program under similar conditions. (G)

When a mistake has been broadcast, it must be acknowledged and rectified as soon as possible by stating the mistake and making the correction. (S)

Sec.1. Complaints, criticisms, or grievances aired against persons, institutions or group, whether public or private, shall be limited to issues which have a
bearing on the public interest. ( S )

Sec.2. The identity of persons or organizations who are allowed to air complaints, criticisms, or grievances must be verified before they are allowed to go on the air. (L)

Sec. 3. Persons, institutions or groups who are the subject of complaints, criticisms, or grievances aired on a station must be given immediate opportunity to reply within the same program, if possible, or at the earliest opportunity. If not, the opportunity to reply should be given in any other program under similar conditions. ( G )
The following sections of the Right to/of Reply Bill stipulate how this will be done:
SECTION 2. Where reply published. -- The reply of the person so accused or criticized shall be published in the same space of the newspapers, magazine, newsletter or station or aired over the same program on radio, television, website, or through any electronic device.

SECTION 3. When published. -- It shall be published or broadcast not later than one day after the reply shall have been delivered to the editorial office of the publication concerned or to the station that carried the broadcast being replied to.

SECTION 4. Length of Reply. - The reply shall not be longer than the accusation or criticism as published or broadcast.

SECTION 5. Free of Charge. - The publication or broadcasting of the reply shall free of charge, payment or fees.

SECTION 6. Editing Reply. -- The reply shall be published or broadcast except for libelous allegations.
Penalties for violating the Right to Reply are prescribed under section 7:
SECTION 7. Penalties - The editor-in-chief and the publisher or station manager and owner of the broadcast medium who fails or refuses to publish or broadcast the reply as mandated in the preceding section shall be fined in an amount not exceeding P10,000 for the first offense; P20,000 for the second offense; and P30,000 and imprisonment for not more than 30 days for the third offense.
Instead of letting news media organizations or associations of news media organizations ensure conformity to their ethical guidelines (or suggestions, as they are sometimes referred to), Senate Bill 1178 will make it a legal obligation for news media organizations to print or air the side of the subject of an adverse opinion or report.

More crucially, punishment will be meted out on those who do not print or air the side of the subject of an adverse opinion or report.

Various media organizations have put out their objection to the enactment of the the Right to Reply Bill and this will be the subject of my next entry.

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