Reporting Luy’s files: backlash from lawmakers

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Friday, May 23, 2014


THE anger was expected. The announced plans for reprisal were not.Some lawmakers were furious that:

n the “Philippine Daily Inquirer” published names (some with photos) of those linked to the pork barrel scandal, basing on “unverified” digital files of whistleblower Benhur Luy; and

n the newspaper report “failed to include their sides.”

Gripers inevitably included those who have nursed grudges, and have been quick to file lawsuits, against journalists. They’ve seized the emotional groundswell in the House and would like to return fire at media.

Lawsuits, press bills

The empire-hits-back moves may include:

-- Individual complaints or a class suit against “Inquirer” by those named in the list culled from Luy records on the pork barrel fraud;

-- Renewal of moves to pass the right-of-reply bill, which had been shelved because of
stiff opposition from the press; and

-- More stonewalling in the House against freedom-of-information bill and related pro-press measures such as decriminalizing libel and correcting the venue of libel.

Anti-media wrath

Let’s clarify though. Anti-press sentiment was expressed by only a few House members, with senators keeping silent. As heat and frenzy over the publication simmer down, aggrieved legislators may look more lucidly at the media bills and may dump plans to sue.
The entire media might bear the brunt of congressional wrath for the act of one broadsheet, the “Inquirer,” a powerful medium, yet only a part of the industry that
would be hurt by legislative backlash.

But at this stage, it’s just speculation. Those crying for blood against the press might come to their senses: retaliation would be unjustified and there are means of redress. And lawmakers suspected of pocketing kickbacks from their pork barrel might realize they could stoke the fire of public ire over the pork scandal.

Solid basis

The “Inquirer” trusts it has solid basis for publishing the list: Luy’s database. With other lists sprouting everywhere, why not a list based on “credible” information from Luy whose testimony, with that of other whistleblowers, provided evidence for the initial indictments on the scam?

There are journalistic “sins” charged by TV5 news and information chief Luchi Cruz-Valdez (see box) but those may be tackled best by “Inquirer,” in an in-house inquiry or in a media arbitration body. Or, let the court decide, as TV5 news anchor Erwin Tulfo chose to do by suing the paper.

Media personalities -- in addition to lawmakers, bureaucrats, brokers and middlemen, NBI and DOJ, other state state agencies, even bishops and priests -- were among the listed beneficiaries of the scam. The articles apparently didn’t mind how much confusion it could cause and who would be hurt by the “unverified” information.

Perhaps after the series of “exposes,” should they not explain plainly the material’s worth as evidence in court and as factor in shaping public opinion?

Matter of fairness

Core of complaints against the publication was the matter of fairness. The paper could be less than fair, griping lawmakers say, since:

n The information from the Luy files was not independently vetted; it was, one legislator said, “raw material”;

n Display of the stories wasn’t explicitly tagged as still-to-be-verified information; on the contrary, one headline allegedly said “those involved in Napoles racket,” as if
a conclusion was already made;

n They were not able to air their version of the controversy.

Media’s task

The “Inquirer” has staked its credibility on the story of the decade and must be credited for the energy and resources it has poured into it since it broke the first story about the scandal.

On right of reply, there must be some lawmakers who didn’t get space as there were many others who chose to be silent. As in any issue that confounds and riles the public, not everyone can be heard at once or at the same time.

Aggrieved lawmakers may do well to ponder effects of waging a vendetta against media over the enterprise of one newspaper. The press, on the other hand, may also consider legislators’ grievances, which are valid and reasonable and which merely come from ruffled pride.

Ultimate judge, to be sure, would be readers and listeners who must believe that assaulting media merely diverts debate from the central problem.

Media can help minimize confusion if it clearly tags peripheral issues and doesn’t get sidetracked. Even if questions crucial to the publishing and broadcast industry are being dragged to the limelight, editors and reporters may not forget what the pork barrel scam is all about: punishing perpetrators and setting up better safeguards against raids on the public treasury.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph; paseares@gmail.com]

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 24, 2014.

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