“The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent. That’s power.” – Malcolm X

I’ll go against popular sentiment and support Rep. Rodolfo Antonino’s proposal to include the right of reply in the Freedom of Information Bill, not only because it challenges media on a right it considers sacrosanct –  the exercise of sole and absolute control over what and who will get how much printed space, airtime, or bandwidth – but, more importantly, because it guarantees fair play. 

The argument of media against the right of reply is framed as a struggle between freedom of speech and oppression. 

    “Right of Reply is repugnant to any true democracy’s notion of independent media. A press that can be dictated upon to dedicate time and space to anybody who cries foul is as good as censored. It is not just that the finiteness of time and space makes equal time and equal space an impossibility in print, on air, or even online. More to the point, any attempt to legislate responsibility and fairness in news and commentary can only end up hijacking journalists of their editorial prerogatives. It will force editors to surrender to law the use of their own human judgment, and yes, their own scruples, their own vulnerable sense of ethics, to decide what is fit to print or air. Telling media what it must print will have the same result as telling it what it must not: It will have the effect of prior restraint, and of denigrating our Bill of Rights. Right of Reply, everywhere it has been experimented with and failed, is not manifest in fair reporting but in dictated tyranny, on a daily basis,” said a recent editorial in this website. (Interaksyon.com)

As an opinion columnist, the framing of the argument works fine for me. Freedom of speech gives me the editorial prerogative of writing on any issue. I can attack anybody and I am not obligated to surrender any of my column space to a response because to be legally obliged to give up some of my finite space would, in effect, be telling me what I can or cannot write. 

I have the Bill of Rights to back me up. I can build or destroy as I wish. I have that power and I’m only at the bottom of the media pyramid. Above me are the editors and publishers and above them, at the top of the pyramid, are the owners. They control the flow of information and opinion, they have the last word on what to disseminate or suppress. 

Media prefers to call the arbitrary power to decide what information and opinion to disseminate or suppress editorial prerogative but I call it censorship. Censorship or editorial prerogative gives owners of the largest news organizations immense power. They can set the terms and scope of the national debate because the rest of media, from second-tier outlets to hao-siao operations all the way down to blogs and tweets, feeds on their headlines and editorials. 

Does the marketplace of ideas function more efficiently under a self-regulating media oligopoly than a system of laws and regulations that mandates fairness? Is it healthy for democracy to have a one-sided conversation?

Gagging speech is a crude form of censorship. The more sophisticated way is to allow everyone to speak but only a selected few to be heard. That’s what media does when it exercises editorial prerogative and denies a victim the opportunity to air his side. It mocks the Bill of Rights and it undermines the principle of fair play.

Fair play is as vital to democracy as free speech. Fairness is what Rep. Antonino’s right of reply amendment is all about. It addresses the question why should a victim of shoddy reporting or a demolition job be denied the right to rebut the information or allegation that could damage his reputation and good name? Why should a victim have to look for another forum to air his side? Why can’t he have the right to defend himself in the same forum where he was maligned?

I am not arguing for the right of reply as a cover for what closet authoritarians call responsible journalism.  We all know that the meaning of responsible journalism is subjective – if you agree with the story then it’s fair and balanced and if you disagree then it’s biased and unfair – so I won’t cite numerous reports and editorials that I find irresponsible. Besides, I don’t believe a law mandating responsible journalism will work because responsibility cannot be legislated. But fairness can be. 

I support the right of reply because every victim should be given the right to air his side in the same forum where he was singled out. Rep. Antonino’s right of reply amendment gives media’s victims the wherewithal to defend their reputation and good name. 

    “Opportunity to Reply – Any person natural or juridical who came to be involved directly or indirectly in the issue publicly obtained (meaning obtained under FOI) must be given the opportunity to account for, explain, manifest or throw light upon the issue concerned in the following manner” – give equal space or time for a reply in the same printed space, on-air segment or online post where the information appeared, not later than three days after its printing, airing, or posting. 

The right of reply amendment is not an attempt to “hijack the editorial prerogatives” of journalists nor does it attack their  “vulnerable sense of ethics”. It is not a prior restraint ruse or a denigration of the Bill of Rights. It is victim-oriented legislation, it mandates fairness, it levels the playing field for the victim, it is not legislated oppression. 

How can giving a victim the right of reply be tantamount to the suppression of freedom of speech? How can the “finiteness of time and space” be cited as legitimate grounds to deny a victim the opportunity to defend his reputation and good name? 

Media cannot tell a person who feels maligned, “We would love to have you respond but we don’t have the time and space to carry your rebuttal. Pasensiya na lang, poh.” 

Time and space limitations are not valid grounds for evading accountability. If media wants to call Rep. Antonino’s amendment legislated fairness then so be it. Because if media will not play fair then it must be made to play fair. And that’s only fair. 

My only criticism of Rep. Antonino’s amendment is it grants the right of reply only to those affected by the FOI Bill. There are many victims of shoddy reporting and demolition jobs who have nothing to do with government and they will continue to have no recourse. But we can leave consideration of a stand-alone right of reply bill for a later time. 

For now, suffice it to say that Rep. Antonino’s amendment is about fair play. It is not against the freedom of speech because granting victims the right of reply fosters rather than stifles freedom of speech. It levels the playing field, it allows victims to be heard as loudly as those who own the means to be heard far and wide.

Let’s have freedom of information and the right of reply. Both or nothing. Democracy cannot thrive with one and not the other.