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When politicians clam up

First Posted 18:14:00 08/18/2008

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Another media worker was gunned down last week in Camarines Sur. The latest victim was Ronaldo Julia, a radio commentator and newspaper writer in Naga City. Julia is the third media practitioner murdered in less than 10 days. Earlier this month, Radio Mindanao Network anchors Dennis Cuestas and Martin Rojas were shot in General Santos City and Roxas City in Capiz. Although the suspects in the deaths of the RMN anchors have been identified, the motives have yet to be ascertained.

In light of the right-to-reply bill now pending in the Senate, I think it would be useful to know these facts, including the circumstances behind recent media killings because one of the rationale of Senate Bill 2150, otherwise known as the ?right to reply? bill, is to curb, if not eliminate, media violence. Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., the bill?s principal author, believes the proposed law will help ?deter aggrieved persons from resorting to violence to get back at media personalities who wrote or uttered the stories or commentaries that are unflattering or defamatory to them.?

The Senate?s concern for the welfare of the media practitioners is highlighted in the bill but I don?t see how a right of reply would address the spate of media killings. From 1986 up to the present, close to 100 media workers have been killed. How many of them uttered untruthful stories and baseless views and denied the subject of their attacks equal time and space to air their side would have been useful data for Congress in looking at the problem.

Since the Senate has not offered any statistical data on the matter, I am moved to recall what a broadcast executive said during a media forum organized in observance of Press Freedom Week in 2004. According to lawyer Ricardo Puno, although some people may question media?s reporting on corruption in government as some of them turned out to be inaccurate, more than 80 percent of stories about corrupt public officials ? including judges and prosecutors ? are true.

No wonder, politicians who figure in controversies are usually scarce when news reporters try to track them down for a reply. A classic example is former Department of Agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn ?Jocjoc? Bolante, who became scarce after the Senate initiated a probe on the 2004 P789-million fertilizer scam. Rather than appear in the Senate to answer the grave charges, Bolante fled to the United States.

There are many cases about anomalies and crimes like rape committed by public officials, and the stories are usually published with clarifications like, ?this paper tried to call (name of person) but his phone was off,? or ?this paper tried to get in touch with him at his office or residence, but he cannot be reached.? As media colleagues have already pointed out: the problem is not with media?s failure to seek a reply, but with the politicians? instinctive reaction to clam up.

In a previous article, I asked if the right-to-reply bill would apply only to straight news articles or would newspaper editorials and broadcast commentaries produced and anchored by organic station employees fall under its jurisdiction? This point is important, especially in an election year, when newspaper and electronic media give incisive commentaries that help mold public opinion on persons running for public office.

A landmark case in the United States should interest us in the discussion of Senate Bill 2150. In September 1972, the Miami Herald published two editorials that severely criticized Pat L. Tornillo Jr., a teachers? union boss who was then a candidate in a legislative primary in Tallahassee, Florida.

The first Herald editorial, which came out on September 20, 1972, highlighted Tornillo?s role in the series of teachers? strikes in Dade County. This was a mass action committed six years earlier, but since the newspaper had covered the event and presumably had formed an opinion about the teachers? strike led by Tornillo, the Herald advised voters to look at the candidate closely:

?This is the same Pat Tornillo who led the CTA (Classroom Teachers? Association) strike from Feb. 19 to March 11, 1968, against the schoolchildren and taxpayers of Dade Country. Call it whatever you will, it was an illegal act against the public interest and clearly prohibited by the statutes.

?We cannot say it would be illegal but certainly it would be inexcusable of the voters if they sent Pat Tornillo to Tallahassee to occupy the seat for District 103 in the House of Representatives.?

The subsequent editorial came out on September 29, 1972.

In response, Tornillo went to the Herald offices armed with rebuttals defending the CTA and asked that the paper print them verbatim or risk Florida?s ?right of reply? statute.

Enacted in 1913, the state law provides that ?if a candidate for nomination or election is assailed regarding his personal character or official record by any newspaper, the candidate has the right to demand that the newspaper print, free of cost to the candidate, any reply the candidate may make to the newspaper?s charges. The reply must appear in as conspicuous a place and in the same kind of type as the charges which prompted the reply, provided it does not take up more space than the charges. Failure to comply with the statute constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor.?

The Miami Herald refused to publish Tornillo?s reply prompting him to bring the case in Circuit Court, Dade County. He asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief and actual and punitive damages in excess of $5,000. (To be continued)

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