Par for the course
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2020 - 12:00am

One of the complaints of people who have been the subject of negative news is that their reply or clarification even an erratum from the publication is usually “buried” in the back pages or in obscure sections. There have also been instances when a subject’s request to air his side was refused if not ignored, resulting in libel complaints filed by those who seek redress from what they perceive to be unfair treatment from the media.  

While there are existing laws in the Philippines that punish libel, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 adds a new dimension since it covers articles or stories that are published or aired over the internet where the reach is much wider. 

I happened to obtain a copy of the statement by Wilfredo Keng whose libel complaint against Maria Ressa over a story published online was upheld by a Manila court. Keng claims that he decided to seek redress from the courts due to the refusal of Rappler to, at the very least, air his side and give him an opportunity to clear his name. 

Those who are in media especially newspaper columnists and broadcast program hosts are well aware that libel cases are “par for the course.” We all know this because I, along with my dear friend, the late PhilSTAR publisher Max Soliven, faced several counts of libel filed by a presidential adviser. In fact, Max and the late Louie Beltran also faced a libel suit from Mrs. Cory Aquino who was president at the time.

Even in the US, President Trump’s reelection campaign team sued CNN and other publications for libel. The US president has been waging a continuing battle with media, which is why he continues to use Twitter as his weapon to fight back his critics and detractors. 

No doubt, there are some media people who glory in having libel cases filed against them because it gives them a reputation of being hard-hitting journalists. Some TV personalities also enjoy being in the limelight and bask in the fame (or notoriety) of being seen as tough guys who “eat libel suits for breakfast.”

But while freedom of the press as well as freedom of speech are important, freedom of the press is not absolute. Media – whether traditional or digital – are such powerful mediums, so the more reason why they must be balanced with fairness and responsibility. 

Despite having been subjected myself to a libel complaint in the past, I now believe that anyone being attacked unfairly by media should be given the “right to reply” – in the same column, in the same space where the item came out, and given the same kind of prominence or treatment as the article or news item in question. While people in public office must accept criticism, they should also be treated fairly and given the right to respond to accusations or issues raised against them.

The late senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, whom I personally knew and admired, pushed for a “right to reply” bill because he wanted to “make it a legal obligation of newspapers, radio and television stations to print or broadcast the replies of individuals who are on the receiving end of their tirades.”

Although it’s rare for journalists to be jailed for libel, it’s time the “right of reply” is made into law because the internet is so powerful – once something is posted, it can stay forever.  

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The Boss

I just had a telephone conversation with ECJ on his birthday (June 10) and so was shocked to hear about the passing of this good, personal friend of mine whom I respected and admired.   

I got to know ECJ in 1985 when he invited me to his farm in Pontevedra, Negros Occidental for an election rally. We flew into Bacolod in his private plane with his late brother, Henry. 

I spent a couple of days with Danding in his farm, giving me the opportunity to really see that despite coming from a landed clan, he had this “common” touch that connected with ordinary people such as farmers and fisher folk.  

Many people saw the “Boss” as a shrewd businessman and political kingmaker, but in reality, he always had a soft spot for farming, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He took up Agriculture at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños and the California State College in San Luis Obispo, and firmly believed that developing the agriculture sector is crucial in maintaining food security. He was also a strong advocate of education, providing scholarships not only to students all over the country but to teachers as well.

In the past few years before I took on this job in Washington, I used to spend regular lunch hours with him, just the two of us at his San Miguel office. Occasionally, RSA (Ramon Ang) would join us. ECJ and I had a lot of long interesting conversations about life, reminiscing about how things were. He confided that his lowest point in life was during his exile, and shared how he felt at peace after reconciling with Mrs. Cory Aquino – his first cousin – two years prior to her passing. 

ECJ has had a full life, having helped many people during his lifetime. And no matter what some may say about him and regardless of the controversies, Danding was a man with a good heart.  

I’m sure thousands would have lined up to pay their last respects to the “Boss” if not for the pandemic. Sadly, I cannot pay my last respects personally, but like all his friends, we offer our fervent prayer for the repose of his soul.

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