Estrada’s ‘Magna Carta’ bill

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In response to, among other media issues, the continuing killing of journalists — 130 so far killed in the line of duty since 1986 and 16 since Benigno Aquino III became President in 2010 — Senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada has re-filed the “Magna Carta for Journalists” bill which he had filed during the 14th Congress.

The bill declares “security of tenure, humane conditions of work and a living wage” for journalists as State policy, and as objectives those of ensuring “comprehensive benefits packaged at par with the current benefits enjoyed by those in the labor force,” motivating journalists to “perform their duties as truthful and responsible informers of the people,” and creating “an atmosphere conducive to… productive and fruitful journalism work.”

A magna carta is supposed to guarantee the rights and privileges of a sector or group. But despite its professed commitment to security of tenure, etc., Estrada’s bill contains neither. Instead what it has is a provision for the creation of a Philippine Council of Journalists (PCJ) which would accredit journalists through an examination, and conduct seminars and other training.

Only those who pass a Professional Journalist Examination conducted by the PCJ will be accredited should Estrada’s bill pass. These journalists would be issued an Accreditation Identification Card which they will be required to wear when on the beat or on special assignments. They will be entitled to benefits in addition to those provided them by their employers, which benefits will be accorded them by law and the PCJ.

Non-accredited journalists — those who either did not take the examination or who failed it — will not be issued the card, but can still, so the bill declares, cover news events, and will enjoy those privileges their employers have endowed them with. Those journalists who have been in practice for at least 10 years will be exempt from the examination but will nevertheless be interviewed by PCJ before they are accredited.

While the “Magna Carta” would single out journalists as a special sector or group worthy of such a charter, it is not actually about rights and privileges, but about limitations. It also endows the PCJ with the power to decide what level of skills, knowledge and ethical compliance a journalist should have in order to practice, while being exquisitely vague about whether it will be a private or governmental agency.

The implementing rules and regulations that would follow the bill once it is signed into law would likely transform it into the latter, since it would not make sense for the Council to be without any means to compel compliance. It would thus impinge on the press freedom the Constitution specifically states cannot abridged by any law: it would be unconstitutional.

It is also possible that conflicts over the kind of examination the PCJ would administer would arise. Unlike medicine or accountancy, journalism defies the making of standardized examinations. How the fitness for it can be determined is an issue about which there are as many opinions as there are practitioners, among other reasons because there is no standard course of study required of everyone.

The Commission on Higher Education does mandate minimum standards for college journalism programs, but only some media organizations require journalism degrees. Others require college degrees in any discipline, while some old school practitioners even argue that minimum writing ability, and the capacity to get information, are enough qualifications for reporters.

But what’s even more fundamental is whether it’s necessary to single out journalists for special treatment — or, what’s likely to happen in this case — for special restrictions. Journalists are already part of the labor force, the terms of whose employment are determined by existing laws, in terms of, among others, their contracts with their employers and/or the collective bargaining agreements their unions have entered into.

A magna carta specifically for them is in the same category as other attempts to endow journalists with special status, among them making it easy for them to arm themselves, making them persons of authority, and other past initiatives from Congress. All have been rejected by responsible journalists’ and media groups which argue that journalists need only the same protection as other citizens.

Be that as it may be, only in passing does the bill mention salaries and wages. Section 6 states that the determination of salary scales for journalists should consider comparable wages and incomes in occupations requiring the same qualifications; the cost of living; and something it vaguely describes as the “imperatives of economic and social development.”

The reality is that there are wide disparities in wages and benefits among journalists. These disparities depend on several factors: whether the journalist is employed by a foreign wire service, is based in Manila or the communities, works behind the scenes as an editor in television or appears on camera, reports for a tabloid or broadsheet, and even which Manila broadsheet he or she works for.

The need of the hour as far as wages and benefits and concerns is to standardize them in terms of equal pay for equal work. To determine wages through the factors the Estrada bill identifies is to reiterate what considerations supposedly determine wages for everyone in the labor force and not only for journalists.

The bill also mandates the promulgation by the PCJ of a Code of Ethics, despite the Philippine Journalists’ Code of Ethics’ decades-long existence. The bill mandates sanctions such as suspension or withdrawal of accreditation, and suspension of (unnamed) benefits and privileges should a journalist be found guilty of violating the yet to be drafted Code. That makes the bill also about sanctions rather than rights and privileges.

The bill does have a section on the security and safety of journalists. But, among other mandates, merely requires the investigation of instances of violence and threats against journalists, a practice the police say is already in place.

It does not address the reasons why journalists are threatened, harassed and even killed, among them State failure to prosecute the killers of journalists and the masterminds behind the killings, as well as State inability to stop threats and harassments against journalists, which, among others includes the use of criminal libel to silence them. Libel is among the many provisions of the Revised Penal Code a House of Representatives bill that seeks to revise the Code does not even mention.

These gaps make the bill irrelevant to addressing the problems that confront journalists, and are even likely to make the already problematic practice of journalism even more difficult and hazardous. Estrada can do worse than withdraw his bill, lest it makes things worse rather than better. He could instead devote his energies to campaigning for the elimination of criminal libel from the Revised Penal Code, and for the reform of the rules of court which have caused interminable delays in the trials of those accused of killing journalists and planning the killings, which is what’s happening in the four-year-old Ampatuan Massacre trial.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
15 August 2013

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