by Jess Dureza
( Author is a lawyer and the chairman/president of the Philippine Press Institute, a national organization of Philippine newspapers and publications. He also sits in the Philippine Press Council representing Mindanao.)
METRO MANILA ---The Philippine Press Institute (PPI) met the other night in downtown Makati and discussed how to deal with the complaint filed by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile against the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It stemmed from the publication of PDI of a story that identified him as allegedly the "mastermind" or "brains" behind the alleged PDAF scam of Janet Napoles. Senator Enrile vehemently denied this.
Instead of filing a libel or civil case in the regular courts, it was instead filed before the Philippine Press Council (PPC), asking for an investigation and the corresponding sanctions imposed, if warranted. I will not talk here about the merits of the Enrile complaint. I will just show to you what this process is all about.
This grievance procedure is not known to many. But at PPC, an aggrieved citizen can lodge a complaint against the newspaper concerned without going to court and seek redress from the print media sector itself. PPC is composed of sectoral representatives from the academe, civil society and private media. It somehow serves as a "watchdog" in that an individual can lodge a complaint against a PPI newspaper-member if he feels aggrieved due to a published article and he needs to also have his side reasonably heard as a way of vindication. It is a mechanism that allows the media sector itself the matter of policing its own ranks and disciplining its own members and at the same time upholding press freedom.
However, there are certain "jurisdictional elements" that must be present to set in motion this procedure of seeking redress. Here are some basic things to bear in mind before the council can take cognizance of a complaint.
First, the newspaper subject of the complaint must be a PPI member. This is necessary because sanctions cannot be imposed on non members for obvious reasons, the press council being an instrumentality of PPI. Secondly, there must be no other pending case in court or in any other body over the same subject matter. In this case, a certification submitted by the complainant must first attest to this non-pendency. Thirdly, there must be a waiver on the part of the complaining party as to judicial recourse, meaning he will forego of his right to go to the regular court or any other administrative body to seek redress if he submits to the jurisdiction of the press council. Lastly, the complainant must show proof that he had communicated to the newspaper concerned to give his side to a published derogatory report but this has not been given due consideration by the said publication.
If all the above elements are present, the press council shall then take cognizance of the complaint and after due investigation and hearing both parties, a decision is rendered. An erring newspaper will be required to publish the decision of the council and/or will be ordered to give reasonable space for the publication of the complainant's own side of the story subject of the case. If the newspaper refuses to comply, a possible fine can be imposed and the other PPI newspaper-members may then proceed to publish in their own publications either the decision or the side of the aggrieved party or both.
This mechanism for redress has not been resorted to too often by aggrieved citizens principally because this procedure for redress is not known to many yet. In fact, there were not too many of such complaints lodged before the council up to the present. According to records, the most notable and the latest case so far heard was the case filed by former Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo against the late Philippine Star columnist Max Soliven, for the latter's series of commentaries allegedly derogatory to former ES Bert. But this happened many years ago. In fact, incumbent PPC chair Tony La Vina said the council had been inactive for sometime and needs to re-charge batteries now with the Enrile complaint filed before it.
Provincial or regional press councils may also be organized by the local press groups to address their own local problems. I was informed that the press council that is most active and functioning today is the press council in Cebu City. I touched base with the council through Ms. Cherrie Lim when I was in Cebu last week.We need to replicate this mechanism nationwide. For the moment, the Philippine Press Council has been moribund and it got out of long slumber only with this recent complaint filed before it by a senator of the Republic.
This will now bring me to some other important points I wish to stress. If the press council is active and functioning and worthy of the public's trust, there is in fact no more need for Congress to pass the controversial "right to reply bill" that media is opposing. I understand the "right to information" bill that media is pushing is still pending in Congress and is subject to a "quid pro quo" deal where the last time I checked, Congress seemed to push for an "exchange deal" for the latter's baby, the Right to Reply bill. Come to think of it, there is no more need for this "tit for tat" arrangement. The intendment of the "right to reply" law is rendered moot by this press council mechanism. Moreover, by availing of the press council grievance machinery, we all avoid and prevent long, tedious, expensive and acrimonious law suits and cases between the press and litigants seeking redress.
We always also hear the advocacy of de-criminalizing libel. This press council mechanism, if normally availed of by those who have complaints against newspapers, will bring about this desired end -- even before the law is amended. Ultimately, this will all bring us a more responsible , a much livelier and freer press -- a necessary bulwark of our democracy.