The highly-questionable ‘Right to Reply’ Bill and grant of executive clemency
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2008-10-14

Senator Nene Pimentel and Representative Monico Puentevella of Bacolod have valid grounds for moaning about the lack of fairness on the part of some media practitioners who deprive those whom they’ve criticized for whatever issues their right to reply and ventilate their side.

We must also decry the practice of some media practitioners who allow the criticized party only a token reply.

The right to reply is enshrined in the Code of Ethics of Journalism. The public has the right to know the position of both sides of an issue regardless if the writer or the editors don’t agree with one side.

However, that does not mean that the Pimentel and Puentevella versions of a ‘Right to Reply’ Bill — already passed in the Senate and now about to be debated in the House — are the proper solutions to the problem. Regulating press freedom poses more problems than what is being solved.

The very attempt to regulate press freedom violates the Constitution which mandates that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression or of the press.”

That feature of Puentevella’s House Bill mandating that the reply should also be published on the same page and should be given equal length will give this regime — which does not hesitate to stifle press freedom — virtual control of a newspaper (or a news and public affairs broadcast program). The ‘equal space and equal time’ proviso of the ‘Right to Reply’ Bill will provide this and future regimes the leeway to control, manipulate and dominate media.

It must be noted that the most followed TV, radio networks and broadsheet newspapers have been very balanced in their news reporting. A lot of the problems are found in local media. Ad-dependent national media are very conscious of the importance of maintaining their credibility and this is dictated not just by the Code of Ethics but by market realities as well.

Make the mistake of being perceived as a biased news source and you risk the loss of patronage. People buy newspapers to be informed, not to be conditioned or manipulated.

A distinction must also be made between news reporting and opinion writing. Balanced reporting is required in news writing and most of the time the press is unable to accomplish this only because one side of the issue did not want to speak out or be accessible.

Opinion columns, on the other hand, are bound by different parameters. As an opinion writer, I have occasionally allowed some of those whom I’ve criticized to express their side in my space. But the normal venue for replies to columns is the Letters Section of the newspaper.

Also, opinion writers tend to disregard views that have already been carried prominently in the news stories.

Going to another questionable matter, Malacañang Palace resident, Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), is now under fire for abusing her right to extend executive clemency to double murder and frustrated murder convict Claudio Teehankee Jr.

Before this, GMA had been severely criticized for pardoning convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada, priest killer Norberto Manero, Ninoy Aquino murder plot co-conspirator M/Sgt. Pablo Martinez, among others.

The fact that Teehankee Jr. was released under the cover of darkness — sneaking out, as it were, like a thief in the night — added fuel to the fire.

Acting under the cover of darkness has become a hallmark of GMA’s style. When she made that controversial 1996 visit to Romy Jalosjos in jail, it was almost midnight. When she went to Congress to be proclaimed — despite the protests and questions on the 2004 vote — it was in the early morning hours when most of us were asleep. Now, she does it again with the release of Claudio Teehankee Jr.

Former Senate President Frank Drilon, former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and Attorney Nards de Vera are some of the legal experts who registered their protests over the executive clemency granted to Teehankee Jr. Rather than duplicate what they’ve said, I prefer to focus on GMA’s ability to discern and her good taste — or perhaps better stated as the lack of both.

Just because you have the right or the prerogative to do certain things does not mean that you can do anything with that right or that prerogative.

Just because a man has the ‘equipment’ with which to procreate and the right to procreate does not mean that he can mount any lassie he meets in the street who catches his fancy.
That would make him no different from the mongrel who will mount any bitch in the street.

Such rights and prerogatives, as that of granting executive clemency, require utmost prudence and must be exercised judiciously. In the case of the issue at hand, what should have guided the decision to grant executive clemency to Teehankee Jr. are the following considerations:

1. Does the commutation of sentence promote the ends of justice?

2. Is it fair to the victims of the convicted criminal?

3. Does it prevent justice from being fully served?

4. Does it serve the public good?

Judging from the public outcry that was generated, society seems to be manifesting its feeling that justice was shortchanged. The outcry reinforces the popular perception that in our country there is a double standard of justice — that another brand of lenient justice is reserved for the rich and well-connected.

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