Arroyo's lawyer turns tables on 'immoral' media

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 13 2009 12:30 AM | Updated as of Aug 13 2009 07:34 PM

MANILA - The election lawyer of President Arroyo is turning the tables on the messengers of the controversial news about a $20,000 dinner tab in New York.

In a press conference in Malacanang on Wednesday, Romulo Macalintal said that the media has no right to broadcast or publish criticisms against a lavish dinner of President Gloria Arroyo and her entourage in New York last week since the media themselves have shown "illegal and immoral" behavior.

Militant groups described the $20,000 (about P1 million) dinner at the five-star French restaurant Le Cirque in Manhattan as "highly immoral" considering the state of poverty in the Philippines.

Macalintal said media's own "immoral" activities include accepting commercial placements of government officials and 2010 presidential aspirants. He said these infomercials aired in between TV shows circumvent provisions of the law on illegal campaigning and constitute early campaigning methods.

"Kasi ang issue kanina, sinasabi sa press [conference], naghihirap ang taong bayan. Wala silang makain so bakit ganun sila (President Arroyo and others) kung kumain? Eh kung naghihirap nga ang taong bayan, bakit sila lang ang inaatake [na] gumagastos ng ganoon kalaki. Ganun din naman sa advertisements, (The issue raised in the press conference was that Filipinos are in dire strait. Most people have nothing to eat while President Arroyo and her entourage spend that much for just one meal. But why attack only the President and her entourage for the ills of the country? The 2010 presidential aspirants are doing just the same)," he said in a follow up interview on ANC.

"Ang sinasabi ko naman, merong mga media na nagrereport na iyan (infomercials) daw ay illegal. Bakit daw ginagamit sa advertisements and pera ng bayan? Eh kung ganyan ang position ng media, ay hindi niyo dapat tanggapin ang mga advertisements sapagka't kapag tinanggap ninyo ang mga advertisements... nagiging bahagi din kayo ng illegal activities (There are also media that report that infomercials are illegal since these are financed by public funds. Why then are your media organizations agreeing to place these ads? You are part of these illegal activities), " he added.

Petty arguments?

Vergel Santos, chairperson of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, however described Macalintal's arguments as "quibbling" (irrelevant or trivial).

He said Macalintal should not impose his own views on morality, but should instead focus on more important issues like whose funds were used in paying for the $20,000 dinner at Le Cirque,  Arroyo's accountability in the controversy, and the legal implications of the issue.

"The mere fact that you were seen there, feasting on something expensive while your nation is in such a state of poverty is by itself a scandal. This government should be sensitive and prudent enough to understand and to know what it is getting itself into," Santos said in an interview on ANC.

Santos clarified that there has been no court ruling as yet that declared the infomercials as illegal. He also said that the fact that media groups allow informercials to air on their channels does not inhibit them from making criticisms or comments against concerned parties.

"Hindi naman sinabi na [dahil] tinanggap lang ang commercial eh hindi na natin pwede batikusin.That doesn't prevent media from making comments on the commercial itself," he said.

The Akbayan party-list filed a letter of complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman regarding the $20,000 New York feast and asked for an investigation into the possible use of public funds during the dinner.

The Palace had issued statements that it was Cong. Martin Romualdez who picked up the tab for the meal. Romualdez has declined to confirm it.

Macalintal also did not give details about the New York dinner, saying he was not privy to the facts. Asked what Arroyo should have done in regard to the dinner at Le Cirque, Macalintal said: "Kung ikaw ba inimbitahan, itatanong mo kung magkano ba kakainin natin diyan, magkano babayaran natin? Imposible yun (If you are invited to a meal, will you ask how much will be spent? That's impossible)."

In a statement, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said Arroyo and her companions dined on soup, salad, main course, and drinks like tea and coffee.

After the $20,000 dinner in New York, a separate report on another lavish dinner emerged. This time it involved a $15,000 dinner at Bobby Van's Steakhouse in Washington on July 30.