ROUNDTABLE. Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, speaks at the Philippine Press Institute’s (PPI) roundtable discussion for the formation of a citizens-press council in Bacolod City, where Cebu Citizens-Press Council executive director Pachico Seares (seated beside him) also shared Cebu’s experience with its council. Standing extreme left is PPI executive director Ariel Sebellino. The Bacolod participants agreed on the need for a citizens-press council in their city. The PPI tour to help organize press councils was also scheduled to visit Davao, Pampanga and General Santos.

CCPC helps in the formation of citizens-press councils

More than nine years into its journey as a defender of press freedom, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) is now helping others to take the same path.

This, after the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) in May expressed its intention to promote the creation of press councils in the country to mark its 50th anniversary.

The national association of newspapers, led by its chairman and president Jesus “Jess” Dureza, announced its support for the setting up of public redress mechanisms during the 18th National Press Forum held at Traders Hotel in Manila.

A forum for media issues, CCPC defends press freedom and promotes professional journalism.

Cebu Citizens-Press Council member Mario King is flanked by Retired Judge Meinrado Paredes (left) and Cebu Bloggers Society legal consultant Ethelbert Ouano after the discussion on the Supreme Court decision declaring online libel constitutional. The matter was discussed at the April 2014 quarterly meeting.

Its 15-member council composed of seven media members and eight non-media members has been meeting quarterly since Sept. 21, 2005.

CCPC accepts complaints from aggrieved news sources relating to accuracy and the right of reply. By providing an added means of redress, CCPC hopes to discourage the filing of lawsuits against media and the killing of journalists.

Country tour

Last Aug. 29, the PPI, supported by Coca-Cola Femsa, began its country tour of roundtable discussions on the press council with a visit to Bacolod City. The PPI will visit Pampanga, Davao and General Santos this year as well.

During the Bacolod discussions at Avenue Suites, CCPC executive director Pachico Seares and deputy director Cherry Ann Lim shared with potential members of the citizens-press council in that city the structure and mechanics of the CCPC, as well as the challenges they may face in setting up a council.

The participants at the discussion included members of the press, academe, religious, business and labor sectors, who agreed on the need for a citizens-press council in their area.

Many concerns

They voiced concerns about radio program hosts whose painful words are immediately broadcast, offending news sources, unlike those of print reporters, whose reports still undergo review and editing by editors.

According to the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, many of the journalists killed in the country were radio blocktimers.

One newspaper publisher also said of radio stations that accept blocktimers: “They don’t think of marketing plans anymore because they earn more from blocktimers.”

Blocktimers are not employed by broadcast stations. They just buy airtime from stations, so their loyalty is to the individual, company or organization that paid for their airtime. Some blocktimers are paid by politicians to use their programs to verbally attack their rivals.

Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, said, however, that journalists’ first loyalty is to “people not merely as audience or market but as a public that is participative and deliberative.”

But a representative from the academe cited the problem of journalists being vulnerable to corruption due to their low pay.

When the participants spoke of politicians owning stakes in media outlets in their area, Batario asked, “We (media) demand transparency and accountability from government, but do publishers here disclose their ownership?”

Modest goals

Seares explained that CCPC’s success is due in part to its having modest goals. It does not aim to solve all problems of media. It focuses on receiving complaints from aggrieved news sources on inaccurate reporting and the denial of the right of reply only.

The council encourages all media outlets to voluntarily give news sources the right of reply, so that moves in Congress to legislate the right of reply will not succeed.

There are bills in Congress proposing to force media outlets to give news sources the right of reply or face fines, imprisonment or closure of their media outlets. The CCPC has steadfastly expressed its opposition to these proposals since 2007, calling them “unnecessary, impractical and open to abuse.”

As for complaints against radio and TV networks, Seares said CCPC’s complaints route directs them to the local chapter of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), which has a standards authority that deals with such matters.

But he said the citizens-press council would still provide an opportunity to deal with such problems because members of the KBP are among the media members of the council, at least in the case of the Cebu council.

Through their participation in the citizens-press council, broadcasters also get to understand the advocacies of the council, and it is hoped, adopt them.

Batario said the best defense against libel and violence against journalists is good and ethical journalism.

“How many of you have communicated to the public your code of ethics?” he asked. The question prompted the participants to decide to suggest to the newspaper companies the publication of their codes as a filler on lean days.

PPI executive director Ariel Sebellino said PPI would provide funding support to member-newspapers that want to set up press councils.

First council

According to material provided by the PPI, the first press council in the country was set up with the enactment of Republic Act 4363 on June 19, 1965. The law directed newspapermen to elect members of a press council that would promote a Code of Ethics for the Philippine press and investigate violations of the code.

That council was abolished with the proclamation of martial law in 1972, and after several short-lived incarnations in various forms, was revived in 1987 after the ouster of president Ferdinand Marcos.

The present Philippine Press Council was formally founded by the PPI in 1993 with editors of national newspapers, represented by the PPI board of trustees, as members. Membership in the Council was expanded to include representatives from the academic, business and legal sectors in 2001.

Lim explained that many of the conflicts between journalists and news sources arise from the latter’s lack of understanding of the workings of media. This is why CCPC engages in dialogue the sectors of society that the Cebu press most often covers in its news reports.

Through the consultations, news sources get to understand the deadline and other pressures that journalists face in coming up with the news, while journalists get to discuss with news sources better ways to improve the flow of communication between them.

CCPC has had consultations with the police, priests, politicians, election stakeholders, prosecutors, public information officers, and a host of other groups, during some of the 35 quarterly membership meetings it has held since 2005.

Threats

CCPC also scans the local and national landscape to look at threats that may arise against press freedom. Toward this end, it has passed resolutions opposing some bills in Congress, while supporting others.

Last July, it decried moves by the Cebu City Anti-Indecency Board (Caib) to confiscate publications that it deemed obscene without a court order.

“With this, it is feared that Caib might extend its warrantless seizure to other newspapers, magazines and publications, which it classifies as obscene,” CCPC said in a statement.

The council asked Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama and Vice Mayor Edgar Labella to have the anti-indecency body observe due process in enforcing the ordinance on obscenity.

Earlier in the year, the CCPC also raised concern about the Supreme Court’s declaration of the constitutionality of online libel, as well as an inconsistency in the rule on repeated libel.

Also in July, Rose Versoza of the Cebu Media Legal Aid, legal adviser of the CCPC, addressed members of the academe, student groups, media, law groups and non-government organizations at the “Tayo na para sa FOI” forum in Cebu held as part of a national signature campaign to urge President Benigno Aquino III and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to pass the Freedom of Information bill.

SUPPORTERS of the freedom of information bill at Rajah Park Hotel in Cebu City sign their names on a petition urging President Benigno Aquino III and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to pass the bill. The Cebu Citizens-Press Council called for the passage of the bill in a resolution in 2012.

She shared with them CCPC’s 2012 resolution supporting the approval of the FOI bill and denouncing moves by some legislators to hijack its passage by inserting right of reply provisions as a rider.

She said the passage of the bill, which will benefit ordinary citizens and not just journalists, will provide a “clear, uniform and speedy procedure” in securing information from government offices, as well as a short period of compliance.

Before becoming president, Aquino made a campaign promise to pass the bill, but he now says it is not a priority.
Since the ouster of Marcos, various FOI bills have been filed to force transparency in government. But none has ever been approved by Congress.

It is hoped that with new citizens-press councils forming in different parts of the country, more voices will be heard in the fight to preserve press freedom.