MANILA, February 6, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Leave Susan alone: Prying and inflicting hurt isn’t a ‘right’ of press freedom:

Have we gone insane in the media? What business did any reporters or over-eager media gossips have badgering Mrs. Susan Roces Poe, FPJ’s wife, about her husband’s son by another woman?

Susan Roces is not a candidate for public office – her privacy must be respected and protected. And let me say this loud and clear: Our journalists and media people go arrogantly overboard when they pester and harass victims – no other noun will suffice – about their feelings, their injured reactions, and their private thoughts. It’s cruelty, even sadism – not journalism.

"The public has the right to know" has become the most-abused phrase and practice in every professed democracy. There are a zillion things the public has absolutely no right to know. What have we become? A nation of keyhole peepers, mamboboso, tsismosa, verbal ocho-ocho contortionists, and malicious gossip-mongers?

When the America media viciously tore into the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, even the salacious details of what they did in the Oval Office or where he put the cigar, the alibi put forward to explain this disgusting feeding frenzy is that Clinton’s character, since he happened to be President of the United States, should be a matter of public concern. The argument is that he occupied a position of public trust. The noisy segment of the US media and many Americans even humiliated their president (demeaned the dignity and authority of the Presidential office into that bad bargain, thus demeaning themselves) by putting Mr. Clinton on worldwide television, desperately defending himself before the inquisition of a Grand Jury – right in the camera’s eye – desperately holding a can of Diet Coca Cola in one hand, as if it were Linus’ security blanket in the Charlie Brown comic strip, Peanuts. (Did more for Coke than a hundred million dollar ad, too.)

When she published her book, Living History (Simon & Schuster, 2003), the former First Lady, now New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, rightly pointed out that she believed Clinton could have focused on the growing threat of Al-Qaeda, and in fact even grabbed Osama bin Laden (he had been pinpointed in the Sudan by the intelligence agencies who asked "permission" to zap him) had not he been forced to defend himself from personal attack from all sides.

In truth, emotional crises rob leaders of their energy and concentration and tend to distract them from crucial decision-making. History is full of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. It’s incontrovertible that if Clinton had "rocketed" bin Laden then, 9/11 and the terrible destruction of the Twin Towers, plus the devastation of one wing of the Pentagon, might not have occurred.

In the same volume, on page 195, Hillary speaks about the Presidential campaign in which her husband had been involved. "I learned quickly that, in a race for the Presidency, nothing is off limits. Innocent comments or jests erupt into controversies within seconds of being reported on the news wires. Rumors become the story du jour. And while our past experiences may have seemed like ancient history to us, every detail of our lives was being sifted and combed as if we were some sort of archeological dig."

Commenting on the Lewinsky thing, she remarked on page 444: "Washington was obsessed with the scandal to the point of hysteria."

Let’s not repeat that kind of hysteria here.

Interestingly, Clinton’s popularity went up instead of going down.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, just as the Republicans relentlessly bashed Clinton, a Democrat, the incumbent Republican President, George "Dubya" Bush, is getting it in the solar plexus over the non-discovered "Weapons of Mass Destruction". The Democratic Party challenger, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, is riding high in the ongoing Democratic primaries.

Our campaign season doesn’t officially begin till next Tuesday, February 10th, but in the USA, with the elections far away this coming November, political campaigning is already in full swing.

Coming back to the badgering by media of Susan (who’s always been unobtrusive and ladylike through the years): Let’s cut it out. Ronnie Poe has manfully confessed to having sired a son out of wedlock (which is more than one still moralizing and lecturing ex-President ever did), so let them slam away at Mr. Poe all they want (he’s a candidate) but let his innocent wife alone.

I’ve paid my dues in the fight for press freedom. I was in prison here in our own country. I was booted out of three countries – Singapore, Burma (Myanmar), and South Vietnam – for my reporting. I was "convicted" and sentenced to jail again when sued by President Cory Aquino – until cleared and acquitted by the Court of Appeals. But freedom has its responsibilities, too. In everything we undertake, we in media must be fair, respectful of others’ rights, privacy, dignity, and always strive to be courteous.

Rudeness is not liberty. Democracy – indeed, liberté, egalité, fraternité, as the French put it – must never be an excuse for bad manners.

* * *

Speaker Joe de Venecia rang me up yesterday afternoon to confirm that the Year 2004 budget has definitely not been passed, and that we will revert to the 2003 budget.

"Professor," he declared (he always calls me that, having been my student at the Ateneo), "the country has saved P60 billion!"

He explained that the members of the House of Representatives had objected to the bloated proposed 2004 budget which would (he maintained) have plunged the nation into a serious deficit by next July. The P864 billion budget, he averred, was "too much". Now, we’ll have to operate on the equivalent of the P804 billion earmarked for last year, which he felt is more realistic.

At the same time, JDV assured me that there will be enough funds to underwrite the coming elections. He stated that President GMA and Department of Budget Management Secretary Emilia Boncodin had managed "savings" of P6 billion from the current 2003 budget. Since the President has the authority to realign lump-sum items in the budget, he reminded me, these funds will be realigned – giving the government the P5.3 billion required not merely to underwrite the elections here but absentee balloting abroad as well as provide salary increases for our soldiers and other military personnel. (There’s a rush, pell mell, to appease our military and address their gripes nowadays.)

In any event, De Venecia comments that "all’s well that ends well." In the Bicameral onference Committee yesterday, Senator Manny Villar, who leads the upper chamber’s panel there and the lower house representative, Congressman Rolando "Nonoy" Andaya Jr. (Lakas-LP, 1st district, Camarines Sur), politely "agreed to disagree". Anyway, that’s JDV’s version, which is why he’s known as "Sunshine Joe". Without him, no Rainbow Coalition could have been forged in the disputatious House of Representatives.

As for Joe’s wife, the charming and redoubtable Gina de Venecia not having enlisted for a run for the Senate on the Lakas-CMD Administration ticket, Joe explained: "Gina withdrew. We agreed that we did not want to establish a dynasty."

Careful, Joe. Some of your best friends and fellow congressmen/women might cry: "Ouch!"

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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