The Right of Reply Bill

On its face, the Right of Reply bill legalizes a right already recognized in practice by every self-respecting, ethical journalist: the individual’s right to air his/her side of the story. (Click here for both the House and Senate versions of the bill).
This is nothing but fairness, which is at the heart of every good journalistic piece. But not every journalist is fair, and not all stories are fair, say those who espouse and support the Right of Reply Bill.
But there are other problems with the bill, regardless of whether or not media is fair.

One: It is vague.
It gives “all persons natural or juridical…accused directly or indirectly of committing or 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…the right to reply to the charges published or printed in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or publications circulated commercially or for free, or to criticisms aired or broadcast over radio, television, websites, or through any electronic device.”
As the National Union of People’s Lawyers has pointed out, the words “innuendo,” “suggestion” and “rumor” have to be defined, because they give a person a legal right. What is “innuendo,” which gives one the right to reply in a newspaper article? What is not innuendo, where does one draw the line? When does the right to reply arise?
If a man is arrested for killing, mutilating and raping a 4-year-old girl and the story made headlines, does the suspect now has the right to say he was not guilty, in the same 72 size font that was used for the headline? Despite the fact that the story was based on police records, photographs, videos (of the mutilation, he was a sicko who taped it as he did it) and witnesses’ testimony? He might be guilty as hell, but until convicted in court, after a trial, he is only accused of committing a crime. May he avail himself of this Right to Reply?
If a TV station airs the five-minute video of the mutilation, does that give the suspect five minutes of air time to deny the crime?
What is “electronic device”? If the news article was sent through a cellphone, does that qualify? Who are responsible here? The reporter who wrote the story, the website administrator who put it online, the phone company that sent it to the news subscriber, the cellphone owner that downloaded it and then passed it on to a friend?
Should the cell phone owner be required to send the other party’s reply to whoever he sent the earlier story to?

Two: It is discriminatory.
Philippine laws are enforceable only on Philippine territory. That means it applies only to local, not to foreign media. ABS-CBN may be disciplined but not CNN, which is based abroad, though they deal with the same news stories. This will kill local media, because people will end up watching CNN instead of ABS-CBN, which is too busy running replies to air news stories.
It may be argued that not everyone has access to cable television, or the Internet. But when media loses its relevance, people just tune off, or turn it off. During the Marcos years, no one was reading newspapers. Instead, people were passing on rumors — and news, by the way — by mouth and by phone. Those who have access to news from abroad pass it on to friends and relatives, who pass it on to others. We could go back to such a situation, if local media is forced to either censor itself or run the lengthy replies of all those who felt they were alluded to.

Second, it discriminates between mainstream media and Internet media. While the “editor-in-chief, publisher or station manager, or owner of the broadcast medium” are fined between P10,000 to P50,000 for each offense (in the Senate version), there is no mention of penalties for website administrators of news websites. Even if they run the same story, word for word, only the newspaper or magazine and the broadcast station will have to give the right to reply or pay the fine.

Third, block timers – or those who pay broadcast stations for time slots and decide what to broadcast on that particular time – are let off with a slap on the wrist.
“The block-timers who also fail to broadcast or publish the reply shall be subject to the Code of Ethics or to the realm of self-regulation of the network or station.”

What is the responsibility of the station for the block timers? Will the station pay the fine if the block timer refuses to publish the reply? Or will the penalties of the block timer be limited to those mentioned in the Code of Ethics or the internal rules of the station?
Assuming that the station is responsible for the block timers, in which case they would have to pay the fine if the block timer refuses to air the reply, after paying a hefty fine (P200,000 in the House version) the station may discipline the block-timer. But unless its company rules are clear, it may have no legal basis to make the block-timer pay the P200,000 fine. Its only recourse may be, in the name of self-regulation, to refuse to sell block time to the same person or company.

Three. It actually discourages media organizations from organizing themselves.
“The court may also recommend that proper sanctions be imposed by any appropriate mass media organizations on erring editors-in-chief, publishers, station managers or owners of media concerned.” A media company who violates the Right of Reply may be punished twice, based on the Senate bill: fined by the court, and sanctioned (if recommended by the court) by the appropriate mass media organization. But if you were not a member of any media organization, you only get a fine. On its face, the provision gives media organizations more power to regulate themselves. But it might actually discourage media companies from joining organizations or organizing themselves.

**I chose not to discuss the other aspects, such as those on constitutionality and infringement on press freedom, because I feel these had been discussed thoroughly by other people.

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