Thursday, March 12, 2009

So sue us

“So sue me” was a popular 1990s in-your-face dare, an I-don’t-care. But I read somewhere that its origin could be the 1950s “Guys and Dolls” movie musical starring Frank Sinatra where he sings “Serve a paper and sue me, sue me.” There’s even a So Sue Me hot sauce.

The hot sauce is on my mind as the right-of-reply bill, principally authored by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., threatens to find supporters in the House of Representatives.

Last week, a bunch of former church activists and social action workers with a couple of writers among them had lunch with Pimentel. In case you didn’t know, in the late 1970s Pimentel was legal counsel for the social action arm of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. He cut his legal teeth where most politicians, at that time, feared to tread.

After the filling Chinese lunch at his regular haunt, Pimentel stood up and merrily quipped that there is no such thing as a free lunch. For dessert, he gave us a PowerPoint presentation titled, “If journalists have the right to mortify, the public has the right to reply.” This was about his very controversial bill which journalists, I among them, are opposing vigorously. He anticipated that he would be grilled on it anyway.

Mortify? To mortify means to shame. It’s not the journalists’ God-given vocation to shame for sake of shaming. But sure, exposing shameful deeds is part of our duty.

A lot has been said and written against the bill. Many of them are so well argued they are classics that should be entered into journalism textbooks. Print and broadcast journalists have continuously articulated their opposition. But the bill has its advocates and supporters, politicians mostly, who claim media could be abusive and this bill could be the answer to media’s excesses.

Sure there are excesses and extremes, but these are not what the media exhibit every day. And the suggestion of the bill’s supporters that such excesses could be one of the reasons so many Filipino journalists are murdered every year is like saying these slain purveyors of the word had it coming. Short of saying they deserved it.

The right of reply will stop the bullets? I don’t think so. The right of reply could even give rise to excesses from those who demand it. We ain’t seen nothing yet. OMG! While Pimentel argues that the right to reply is only for those who are severely aggrieved and not just for anyone to demand, who is now to say to them, no, you are not aggrieved enough.

And how now do journalists begin to calibrate what they write or say so that their targets do not demand to make a reply every time and also in excess? And in what way, how much space, when, where, what time? As they say, the devil is in the details.

Just sue us.

Pimentel also says that with this bill, libel suits against journalists could be prevented. Like it’s going to do journalists a favor. Sure a libel suit can be a burden for journalists. I experienced this during the dark days of martial law. But in a libel case, the burden is on the accuser to prove malice. And malice is not easy to prove. The harassed journalist could end up winning the libel case and the accuser proven to be corrupt and a low-life after all. The latter would not like this. He/she would rather demand space and airing in the media in “saecula saeculorum” [forever and ever]. Easier than going to court. “Sikat ka pa.” [You even get publicity.]

Speaking of excessiveness, in 1983, a general sued me and my editor because I wrote a long magazine article that exposed the military’s human rights abuses in Bataan province. I faced a P10-million libel suit. I did not know the general from Adam and his name was not even mentioned in the article. But he claimed he had been maligned.

Who he? I later learned that at that time he was a military attaché somewhere, so how could he have been in charge of the abusive troops? It was clear that he was just used by the dictatorship to harass and sow fear. Still, after the preliminary hearing the Manila fiscal nicknamed Joe Flame had the temerity to file the case. I had to post bail.

(Among my lawyers were Joker Arroyo, Rene Saguisag, Fulgencio Factoran, Jejomar Binay, Augusto Sanchez—all of the Mabini Lawyers group headed by Lorenzo Tañada — and Saklolo Leano of the Siguion-Reyna Law Office. Happily, the case was overtaken by the 1986 People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, and was dropped.)

Just sue us.

Who’s afraid of libel suits? As I said, with a libel suit the journalist could be proven right and the crooks and their shameful deeds could be further exposed.

And there’s that so-called “sunset clause” in the bill that would cause the right of reply to self-destruct (my own words) after several years if the media have been proven to have adhered to the principles of fairness. It smacks of condescension. Pour on the So Sue Me hot sauce.

Responsible journalists need not be told that clashing sides deserve airing, that fairness is paramount. We have our code of ethics, and in the case of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, an in-house ombudsman, a Letters section and a Correction section. Sure, there are scalawags in media who fancy themselves to be journalists — and may their tribe decrease. These are not the ones who give the crooks sleepless nights as they are crooks themselves. It is the journalists who walk the straight and narrow, the ones who discover, know and write the truth — these are the endangered species that the powers-that-be fear most. And might want to stifle, if not eliminate.

So sue us.

* * *

Fr. Ruben Villote, former columnist of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine and founder of the Center for Migrant Youth (CMY), will celebrate the golden anniversary of his priesthood on Sunday, March 15. Mass will be at 9 a.m. at CMY, 15 Goldman St., East Fairview, Quezon City. Telephone number is +632 4286529.