I AM going to take a break from my usual hunt for signs of doom among economic indicators to wish The Manila Times a happy 118th birthday, and to thank them, in the form of an appreciative commentary on the important role of the media and the nation’s oldest newspaper in keeping the Philippines from completely flying apart, for providing me a stump from which to address the people of these fair isles.
In deciding what to write about, I took a look back at what I wrote around the time of the previous three anniversaries since I became a part of this particular herd of scribes, and found this gem from 2013, about a proposal we should be thankful never became a reality, though we may face even more troubling threats now:
“If there was ever an example of why the Philippine legal system should be considered a complete farce, this legislative brain-cramp is it: On Wednesday, two Mindanao Representatives (Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City, and Maximo Rodriguez of the Abante Mindanao party-list, and yes, they are brothers) filed House Bill 2562 to ‘decriminalize’ libel by removing the penalty of imprisonment from the current law, which Congressman R. Rodriguez said ‘infringes on the freedom of speech and of expression and negatively impacts on media practitioners.’
“Instead of the prison sentence of up to six years and a fine up to P6,000, a conviction for libel under the proposed new law will carry the penalty of a fine of between P10,000 and P30,000, ‘in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party.’
“Rodriguez explained his reasoning by pointing out that, ‘While the penalty of fine must be sustained, for no crime should go unpunished, imposing a penalty of imprisonment will work more to discourage members of the media from performing their duties with zeal and vigilance.’
“Here’s a short list of words the Brothers Rodriguez ought to look up in the dictionary: ‘decriminalize,’ ‘discourage,’ ‘infringe,’ and one more very important one, ‘gag,’ since that is what their new and improved proposed law appears to intend: ‘The penalty of P10,000 to P30,000 shall be imposed upon any reporter, editor, or manager of a newspaper, daily or magazine, who shall publish facts connected with the private life of another and offensive to the honor, virtue, and reputation of said person, even though said publication be made in connection with or under the pretext that it is necessary in the narration of any judicial or administrative proceedings wherein such facts have been mentioned.’ [emphasis added]
“In other words, even if uncomplimentary personal information about someone is a matter of public record in an official proceeding, repeating it could result in a hefty fine, the stigma of a criminal conviction (something which is itself rather offensive to one’s honor, virtue, and reputation, particularly if earned as a result of telling the truth of some matter), and whatever other penalties might arise from a civil suit by the aggrieved party. How all of that works to be less discouraging than the current law is a mystery.
“The only thing the Brothers Rodriguez got right is their vague understanding that the present libel law is unfair and potentially restricts free speech, but what they perhaps actually meant to say is it is their view that it is not unfair and potentially restrictive enough. Decriminalizing libel is a rather easy job: Simply remove it from the Penal Code. While there indeed should be consequences for irresponsible and malicious behavior on the part of the media, these should be determined by civil proceedings, not criminal courts. The fact that they are not is actually what infringes on free speech and expression, not the penalties involved. Not only does HB 2562 fail to realize that (and thus fail to address what most of the world’s media watchdogs consider a gross violation of human rights), it actually increases the threat of abusive retribution to those who publish things that put others in a bad light, no matter how conscientiously done.”
Just last month, the issue of media freedom reared its head in an ugly way when two reporters for Reuters found themselves targeted – even receiving death threats – by overzealous supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte who were offended by the way the pair had reported the now-infamous “Hitler comments” made by the President (And for which he subsequently apologized, although not without complaining he had – again – been “taken out of context.”).
As this paper – one that knows a thing or two about being muzzled by those in power, having been shut down for a time during the martial law period – pointed out in its editorial, a free press is a necessary component of a free society; it is the conduit between government and the people, and threats against it robs both of their voice.
That, of course, lays a heavy responsibility on the media to carry out its tasks with objectivity and an awareness of the implications of its work, particularly in times like these, when the threats are not coming from the organized government, but from the people, which adds the uncomfortable role of “peacemaker” to the media’s job description. Understanding that makes one appreciate being part of an organization like The Manila Times – if you want to learn how to do a job right, go do it for the brand that’s managed to survive for 118 years in one of the most unruly media environments on the planet. I appreciate having been given the opportunity to do so, and I hope to be around for many more birthdays to come.