The Wrath of Reply

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For the past few months, President Aquino has been prone to more than a few instances of pitik: that he has taken so many talks and forums as an avenue for him to vent out some remarks about “negative stories.”  It seems that Daang Matuwid has a few more barriers on the curb.  To be a “mabuting Pilipino” in the context of the Aquino Presidency, it seems that a journalist should focus more on writing, reporting, and broadcasting positive, empowering news.

The President said it himself a couple of days ago: “if two sides of a story are reported, if the details of every news are accurate and the freedom of all Filipinos to form their own opinion is valued, then any journalist has nothing to worry about, isn’t it?”  And now, perhaps facing mounting criticism, Presidential deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte somehow deflects Aquino’s remark: apparently, it’s the principle, not the thing itself.  “It’s the concept,” she says, not the bill.  Not that much has been said about Freedom of Information from the halls of the Palace over the past few months, it’s just that the President – a champion of FOI when he was running – is now (conceptually) for a Right of Reply provision.

Perhaps the more damning shame in all of this is that the Administration is using a defense that, like Sotto’s plagiarism, should offend our sensibilities.  To rephrase the President’s own comment: if you’re not doing any defaming or if you’re not making any libelous statements, then you have nothing to fear from this government.

That’s damning, really, considering that our worst politicians and the worst subjects of journalists’ news items have means to ensure “balanced reporting” from their perspective, without the need for an exhortation for “journalistic ethics.”  Sometimes, it’s a matter of paying a journalist with lesser scruples and even lesser principles to write a “praise release” or something.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of blackmail, or even perhaps ransacking offices of newspapers critical of a local – or national – politician.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of murder: take Gerry Ortega for example.  And sometimes, it’s a matter of mass murder: take the Maguindanao Massacre.  Even more damning is that President Aquino’s remark on “balanced reporting” was done in the shadows of these crimes.

If there’s nothing to fear, then what’s with these human rights violations?  Granted that such violations did not happen during Aquino’s time, but there’s a bigger violation in these crimes being brought to justice too slowly under his leadership.  There’s a bigger violation in the fact that under the Aquino administration, the Freedom of Information act – the shield that could have protected the very freedom of our free press – has yet to be passed.  If there’s nothing to fear, then why does the Aquino administration subscribe to – conceptually – to an instrument of fear?

Granted that there are two sides to every issue, and unless we’re all a bunch of self-mutilating people who would delight in seeing doomsday scenarios broadcast everywhere, we’d all like to have our own fair share of good news.  But when you have government-operated radio stations, TV stations, websites, and entire bureaucracies and privileges at work to put a positive image on the government, you won’t need a right of reply.  If the government’s primary concern is “negative press,” it should be able to do two things: either it fixes itself up, or it uses the powerful tools in its disposal – funded by taxpayer money, at that – to “show the other side.”

Granted that the media can be abusive, that some in the ranks – be it traditional or new – may remain unchecked, but (conceptual) right of reply no longer makes media accountable to the public, but accountable to the officials and the figures that they may have slighted in the practice of journalism.  That isn’t the point of balanced reporting: if objectivity and constructiveness is to “see both sides of the issue” then the right of reply stalls those values, turning the media into nothing more than a forum for people in power to make themselves feel better about themselves, and not doing anything – if not much – for the right of the people to be provided for with factual information.  For them to instigate and incite the change that they need and demand from society.

Media is not for the powerful: it is for the liberation of the powerless.  It is a public service, not a political service.  The best way to ensure the media will arrive at the truths needed to serve the public is to ensure free information, not to make them unreasonably accountable to the subjects of their information through right of reply.

If all President Aquino needs from the media is “positive reporting” he has the big machine of government to do that for him.  And it’s a pretty obvious solution to the problem: if the government does good, it’s praised.  And for the past two years, Aquino has not been lacking in praises and good news from newspapers and publications and TV broadcasts from here and abroad.  Sometimes all the government really has to do to get the good news out is to do a good job.

And that’s all it really is, at the end of the day.  If the wrathful replies of the government against the media’s “negative news” is a clear indication of anything, it’s time for the government to do a better job, with clear-cut stands and a clear-cut direction, with free and open access to information.  All the government has to do is to carve out Daang Matuwid, and the media to make sure that such a path is straight enough for the expectations of the people.

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