By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — The Right of Reply Bill had been scheduled for deliberation, if not passage, on Wednesday at the House of Representatives, one of the measures that legislators were supposed to be rushing for approval before Congress went on recess beginning June 5.
That the legislators adjourned their session on Wednesday without passing the controversial bill is small comfort for media groups, who reiterated this week their unified opposition to the proposed law.
House Bill No. 3306 seeks to force media outfits to publish or broadcast the replies of individuals or parties subjected to critical reporting or commentary. The reply, the bill mandates, should be in the same space of the newspapers, magazine, newsletter or publication, or aired over the same program on radio, television, website or through any electronic device.
“The time for vigilance has not ended,” Jaime Espina, vice-chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said in a press conference on June 4. Espina said Congress tried to railroad the passage of the bill.
Vergel Santos of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said the Right of Reply Bill is one of the patently repressive measures that this government has been ramming through. “It is part of a larger ominous design that we should fight,” he said.
“This is a conspiracy of power. They don’t care if this is stupid. They only care that they have the power to ram things through,” he added.
Rudolf Steve E. Juralbal, counsel for the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) agreed. “Coming at a time when public issues are supposed to be discussed freely, this appears to be part of a greater scheme. This could inhibit the free flow of ideas.”
Juralbal said the bill “heralds a process in Congress where there appears to be intrusion into the freedom of the press and of expression.”
Jose Pavia of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) said the fight has only really begun. He recalled telling House Speaker Prospero Nograles in a dialogue with media groups last month that the only win-win solution is for Congress to reject the bill.
Throwback to Authoritarian Past
“If you can set aside the legal issues, the bill is incomplete, it’s chaotic, it’s impossible to implement and a throwback to the authoritarian past,” Maria Ressa said, reading from the statement of ABS-CBN, where she is vice-president for news and current affairs.
Ressa said Congress is assuming two things. First, that the government has the technical competence, organizational ability and the integrity to implement the bill. Second, that media organizations can continue to operate under a law like this. “Both are impossible and unrealistic,” she said.
“This bill is unconstitutional because it is a form of prior restraint. It is an indirect form of censorship,” Ressa said.
In the same press conference, Dana Batnag of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) said the bill takes away from the newspaper the function of checking and verifying the truth. “Take note that the reply does not have to be truthful,” Batnag pointed out.
Ressa said the bill only exposes the vested interest of lawmakers.
In a democratic country like the Philippines, she said, the public needs an independent and self-regulated media to hold the government accountable to the people.
Ressa said the bill may be used as a potential tool to just eliminate dissent, noting the charges filed against journalists.
Paolo Romero of the Malacañang Press Corps questioned the bill’s timing, noting that the election is just a year away.