STATEMENT: Freedom of expression in the time of Duterte

By RENAN ORTIZ

Over three years ago, the nation has been promised: change is coming. And change did come, but things took a turn for the worse.

As the nation marks President Rodrigo Duterte’s third year in power, we look back in sheer dismay over the unprecedented attacks perpetrated primarily by the state, with the apparent goal of shrinking the space for free expression in the country.

Once Duterte assumed the presidency in June 2016, the dome of impunity has widened and enveloped practically the whole of the archipelago. What was once considered rare and infrequent news on police-instigated killings, massacres, and haranguing of communities speedily became frequent staples in the news. Aside from the drug war, dozens of massacres, killings, and arbitrary arrests have been committed at a rate only comparable to the dark years of the Marcos era. With the rampant human rights violations, wittingly or unwittingly, the victims have become mere statistics, losing their names and identities to the dark powers-that-be.

Even freedom of expression is in peril. Merely voicing out concern and reporting on the aggravating human rights situation in the country puts one at risk. The attacks were sustained and targeted all fronts: from the red-tagging of activists and organizations, to the harassment and even killing of journalists. The string of cases against Rappler, for instance, shows how this administration wields its entire machinery to hide the truth in its bloody “war on drugs.” Based on the report released by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2019, a total of 128 cases of threats and attacks against the media have been documented, 60 of which were directly perpetrated by state agents. These incidents range from intimidation, including red-tagging, visits by police teams to the offices of media agencies, to the association of independent media organizations to supposed ouster plots.

No one was spared – from incarcerating vocal critic Sen. Leila de Lima, to attacking the church and even international organizations, Duterte stopped at nothing to make his perceived enemies fall, mincing no words, except in certain instances, like in issues concerning China. Remember how the state practically booted out Sister Patricia Fox, an Australian nun who have worked for decades among the poor and the marginalized just for voicing out her concerns and joining a fact-finding mission? And what about the perjury charges filed by the military against human rights defenders from Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and Gabriela?

Remember how, just recently, veteran journalist Margarita Valle has been nabbed for unknown reasons, only to be released eventually, with the state saying it was just a case of mistaken identity?

Even artists are being criminalized. Two artists — Alvin Fortaliza of Bohol, and Clydie Sabate of Negros Occidental, have been arrested and detained on trumped-up charges. And who could not forget the military’s red tagging of filmmakers who produced socially relevant works?

The attacks were unrelenting. From the “Red October” plot to the egregious “Oust Duterte matrix,” clearly the administration is not on a “wait and see” mode but rather on an active frenzy. Recently, the police filed sedition, cyber libel and other criminal charges against Vice President Leni Robredo and 35 other individuals, including lawyers and Church people, over the Bikoy narcotics video series. Their goal: mass intimidation. They are deploying all weapons in their arsenal to police even the opinions of the public: from the employment of a massive “troll army” and other forms of astroturfing or the attempt to bloat supposed public support for policies, resulting in an era where genuine reports and fake news are difficult to tell apart; the ramped-up surveillance of perceived critics of the administration; to imposing martial law in Mindanao, and similar thinly-veiled military efforts in provinces in Visayas and Luzon.

Even the Internet is no longer a safe space. Remember how easy it was for state agents to relentlessly conduct “distributed denial of service” or DDoS attacks against the alternative media, shutting down their websites at critical moments when reports on attacks against the marginalized and underrepresented were published. International observers dub these attacks as one of the worst cyber-attacks they have seen across the globe in recent history.

The Duterte administration has even tapped draconian laws such as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 to file cases such as cyberlibel against its critics. With Duterte allies now controlling both houses of Congress, soon, the reviled Human Security Act is also set to be amended to give stronger powers to state agents to tag practically anyone and everyone as terrorists, with little to no effort.

Most of these schemes and turn of events aimed at mass intimidation employ the same tactic: preemptive vilification – discrediting those who dare critique policies, pronouncements, and actions of the government even before these critics open their mouths or type their statements. In a nutshell, the last three years drastically shrunk the space for free expression.

Just as state agents are not sparing any moment to practically trample on any and every form of dissent, we must also not wait as our basic civil liberties are being pressed for space. At this juncture, we must realize the importance of the freedom of expression: losing this right opens the floodgates to the violation of other civil, political, and economic rights. Freedom of expression serves as a safeguard for the people to enjoy other freedoms. Without free expression, we can lose all our other important rights in an instant.

It is easy to allow fear to set in and shut our lips and eyes to the worsening state of our nation. But once we do that, will it alleviate the situation? No, it will only continue festering.

To allow the state and its agents to pillage on the right to free expression is tantamount to surrendering hard-earned victories of our people in the past decades. We cannot simply allow the looming shadow of dictatorship to easily slip back. We must decisively unite and fight back.

We need to reclaim the real meaning of change, of how that potent word opens a world of possibilities. Despite the relentless attacks on our basic civil liberties, we need to remember that real change is a force that makes us question everything. Change is what we aspire when we innovate, when we invent, when we create. Change sparks genius, and ignites the fire that seeks to melt and recast the status quo.

To change is to reaffirm the value of militancy, of seeing the potency of collective action. Genuine change requires united action. From artists to journalists to the common people, we need all the force we can muster to fight back. There is no moment to spare. We need to reclaim every inch of space for our civil rights. We need to fight back now. #

Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI)
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
Concerned Artists of the Philippines
Altermidya

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