MANILA, Philippines?A congressman supposedly perennially maligned by the media in his province is gearing up for House plenary debates on his bill proposing penalties for media executives and owners who refuse "equal treatment" of a news subject's reply.
Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella Wednesday said he was expecting his bill to be passed on third and final reading before the Christmas break. "We need to level the playing field in journalism," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the phone.
House Bill No. 3306 seeks to punish the publisher and editor in chief of a publication or the owner and station manager of a broadcast medium if they fail to give equal treatment to a complainant's reply to a specific report. The idea is for the response to be accorded space "equal" to that of the report.
The bill has survived scrutiny at the committee level and quietly found its way into the business of the day. House Majority Leader Arthur Defensor said it could be taken up "anytime" for floor deliberation on second reading.
A counterpart measure, Senate Bill No. 2150, authored by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., was approved on third and final reading in June.
Apart from imposing penalties, SB 2150 specifies that the news subject's reply be published for free in the same space or aired over the same program not later than three days after the reply is sent to the newspaper office or broadcast station.
Media organizations and practitioners are opposing Congress' attempt to impose its editorial judgment on news executives and owners.
Puentevella said he filed HB 3306 at the start of the 14th Congress last year because of his experience with some reporters in his province.
"I am victimized all the time," he complained. "If it's happening in my hometown, I'm sure it's also happening elsewhere."
According to Puentevella, the attacks are more vicious during the election season courtesy of newspapers supposedly controlled by people identified with his political opponents.
"We know the industry as a whole is noble, but we cannot allow unscrupulous people to use newspapers to malign others," he said.
Sought for comment, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casińo said the issue required more discussions, particularly to get the pulse of media practitioners.
Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., a lawyer and veteran journalist, expressed reservations on whether the bill would have "anything more to add" to the existing libel law.
The Tornillo case
Locsin said the main issue was whether a person could interfere with editorial judgment and dictate to publishers or editors on how to publish and present a written response to a newspaper article.
He cited the 1974 decision of the US Supreme Court on the case involving the Miami Herald and Pat Tornillo, a congressional candidate in Florida.
Tornillo had sued the newspaper, citing Florida's right to reply statute. But the newspaper argued that the law violated the free press provision of the US Constitution.
In ruling on the case, the US Supreme Court said: "A newspaper is more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment, and advertising.
"The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials-whether fair or unfair-constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment."
The US Supreme Court also noted the Florida statute's "intrusion into the function of editors."
Should the House pass its version of the right to reply bill, Sen. Loren Legarda would want to be part of the bicameral committee in order to "tone down" the measure.
"A bill is never perfect; there is always room to improve on it," she told the Inquirer Wednesday.
Legarda, who built a career in broadcast news before going into politics, said that while she supported the bill's purpose of upholding the right of news subjects to air their side, she was as concerned as media groups over the proposed penalties and requirements.
"I believe that we should only encourage and not compel journalists to give the same space to their news subjects' reply. These things should not be legislated because news organizations are obliged to get the side of their news subjects at the same time as the publication or airing of the story," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said he agreed that the bill's strict publication or broadcast requirements "could be interpreted as interference in editorial judgment and therefore impinging on the freedom of the press."
"But these freedoms are not absolute," he said.
Pangilinan said that with technological advances making the media more pervasive in daily life, the right to reply had become a necessary measure to ensure that the principles of fair play were upheld by the media.
Per SB 2150, the reply shall not be longer than the accusation or criticism as published or broadcast with the libelous allegations deleted.
The bill imposes a penalty of up to P50,000 on the publisher and editor in chief of a publication or the station manager and owner of the broadcast medium who fails or refuses to publish or broadcast the reply.
If the offender is a public official, he shall be subject to administrative liability under existing civil service laws. Even after the reply has been published or aired, the bill does not preclude the offended party from exercising other rights or remedies such as filing a libel suit.
The bill has a sunset clause, which sets its termination seven years from approval.
HB 3306, on the other hand, imposes a heavier fine of up to P200,000, jail time of up to 30 days, and possible closure or suspension of the franchise of offending media outfits.
Despite criticisms of his pet bill, Pimentel said it would "widen the freedom of expression by obliging the media to provide space to the response and explanation of persons to media reports or commentaries that are inaccurate, unfair or biased against them and injurious to their reputation."
Pimentel said that by publishing or airing the side of aggrieved parties, the media outfits concerned would strengthen their credibility and, at the same time, a source of conflict that might cause trouble to the journalists concerned would be eliminated.He said it was these conflicts that had led the "moneyed and powerful" to file libel suits against, or hire mercenaries to harass or kill, "defaulting journalists."
As a counterpoint to the right to reply bill, Pimentel urged Congress to approve the bill decriminalizing libel to make the law less harsh for journalists punished for supposed unfair and defamatory reports.