November 17, 2012 8:56 AM
After allowing the Freedom of Information Act to wither on the vine, President Benigno Aquino III on Fridayspoke in Tagaytay, at the 38th Top Level Management Conference of the KBP, the national broadcasting council.
Given the elephant in the room, just showing up took some guts. If only the gall came with candor as well. At the very least, the President could have left the disingenuousness in Manila.
Surely he was aware that media practitioners had judged, were judging, him even before he spoke. No doubt he knew the questions on everybody’s minds while he gabbed on about transparency and accountability. Not least because many in his audience had actually supported him in the last elections, there had been a whole lot of handwringing about the President’s dedication and commitment to democracy, human rights, and good governance even before citizens’ groups themselves declared the FOI bill dead in the 15th Congress.
Last week was disappointing to say the least, and disillusioning to all who subscribe to PNoy’s mantra of Daang Matuwid. Through passivity, lack of leadership, or maybe in fact (as has been proposed, and is becoming apparent) a conspiracy, the FOI bill, a cornerstone of then-presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino’s program of government, is farther away from becoming law now as it came under the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
And yet, there PNoy was in Tagaytay, saying these exact words:
“Kapag may sapat at tamang impormasyon si Juan dela Cruz sa mga isyung panlipunan—hindi lamang siya armado sa kaalaman—gaganahan at maeengganyo rin siyang makilahok sa pagpapaunlad ng bayan.”
(When Juan dela Cruz has enough and correct information on social issues, he is not only armed with knowledge; he will also be enthusiastic and encouraged to take part in lifting up the nation.)
Don’t scoff, for he was not being ironic, nor even dense. Given the raw emotions in media and among FOI advocates this week, what followed shows that Mr. Aquino wasn’t being clueless, as in fact being very deliberate, if not confrontational. If FOI supporters feel injured, try his insult. He continued:
“Hindi po nalalayo sa diwang ito ang paninindigan natin ukol sa mga isyu tungkol sa media at publiko, tulad ng Right of Reply. Ika nga: the truth will set you free—kung patas na naibabalita ang magkabilang panig ng bawat storya, kung wasto ang detalye ng bawat ulat, at kung nabibigyang-halaga ang kalayaan ng mga Pilipinong bumuo ng sariling pananaw at pasya sa mga usaping panlipunan, wala naman pong dapat alalahanin ang sinumang mamamahayag, hindi po ba?”
(This is not far removed from our stand on issues relating to media and the public, issues such as the Right of Reply. As they say: The truth will set you free. If different sides to every story were reported equally, if every report came with the right details, and if every Filipino’s freedom to form their own views and judgments on social topics were valued, then no journalist need worry about anything, correct?)
So not only did the President not mention FOI, nor even the words “freedom” or “information”, he drew a line on the ground and finally, openly planted himself on the side opposite where he knows the free press and press freedom advocates stand come to Right of Reply.
What is there to worry about?
Apart from a President who cannot keep his word, how about a press that cannot exercise its freedom? 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.
The President knows this. There is a part of us that cannot believe that he thinks that media will take this lying down, especially as Right of Reply has come out of hibernation to suddenly and conspicuously be invoked twice in two days.
No, this is not about anybody’s serious conviction for a dubious proposition. It is so preposterous, it can only be a red herring, much like Justice Secretary Leila De Lima’s being nominated for Chief Justice.
The real agenda – and it is becoming more unabashed – is still PNoy’s complete change of heart come to FOI. He is wielding Right of Reply for the same reason that Aquino ally and partymate Rep. Ben Evardone mentioned it a couple of days prior: To leave us all fairly warned and threatened with a poison pill with which the FOI, already weak and left for dead, is further being held hostage – just in case anybody’s still entertaining thoughts of a miracle.
We’re not. Neither are we inclined to allow ourselves to be distracted from what remains the real issue right now: President Aquino’s betrayal of a cause to which we had believed he was a friend and champion, and for which he was graciously and patiently granted good faith.
Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said civil society is not really worried, FOI or not, because they know this President to be clean, and accessible, and transparent. Which, apart from being arrogant, if not mistaken, totally misses the point about why we need laws. We need them because we never know what, or who, comes next. Even those we think we know can be led astray, if not by principles lost, often by hubris borne of their own sense of moral superiority.