We articulate not only what concerns us but more essentially what concerns those whose rights are trampled upon. In so doing, we empower them to likewise articulate their sentiments and aspirations.
By ROMA ESTRADA
MANILA — In his come-back press conference on April 16 as presidential spokesperson, Harry Roque bragged the limitations of free expression in an international emergency. Reading Section 6 of Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Roque mentioned and threatened singer Mystica for emotionally expressing her frustrations over the government’s slow actions in distributing relief goods through Facebook live.
Such pronouncement of the former human rights lawyer turned mouthpiece of the tyrant in Malacañang is just a part of the continuing efforts of the government to curtail dissent.
On Labor Day, four labor leaders and two members of Liga ng Manggagawa sa Valenzuela were arrested for conducting an online protest at home in lieu of the celebration of Labor Day.
Five days before this, an overseas Filipino worker in Taiwan, Elanel Ordidor, was threatened of deportation by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). She was accused of cyberlibel “for willful posting of nasty and malevolent materials against President Duterte on Facebook.”
The two incidents are just the latest in a series of attacks on free expression perpetrated by the powers-that-be.
On March 24, Brandon Perang, a rapper in Cebu City, was made to swear before Governor Gwendolyn Garcia not to comment against government efforts on COVID-19 again.
On March 27, Juliet Espinosa, a public school teacher in General Santos City, was arrested without a warrant because of a Facebook post about the incompetence of their LGU in distributing relief goods. She was charged with inciting to sedition.
On April 5, Joshua Molo, a student journalist, was made to issue a public apology following a heated argument with his high school teachers regarding the latter’s alleged anti-poor sentiments amid the lockdown.
On April 6, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued a memorandum to their employees “not to post negative comments against the government”.
On April 15, students who commented against the decision of the University of Santo Tomas to continue the semester despite the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) were reported to have been issued a notice of disciplinary action.
On April 19, artist Maria Victoria Beltran was arrested in Cebu City over a satirical Facebook post. On the same date, seven volunteers of Sagip Kanayunan and Tulong Anakpawis relief mission including former Rep. Ariel Casilao were illegally arrested for allegedly carrying “anti-government propaganda”.
All these do not yet include the dozens of subpoenas issued by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to individuals who just aired out grievances against the government online.
We can demand government accountability only for as long as there is free expression.
Closely keeping track of these cases of silencing, the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) analyzed the framework of the current crackdown and underscored the necessity of free expression especially in the time of crisis in a webinar dubbed as Paki/Alam on April 23.
Speakers sociology Prof. Sarah Raymundo of UP Diliman, Atty. Josa Deinla of National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), Manila Bulletin columnist/blogger Tonyo Cruz, and indigenous peoples advocate Pia Montalban of Ecohumans explored the essential dimensions of free expression.
The crackdown’s framework
Silencing dissenting voices is not carried out only through actual arrests. Cruz maintained that the Duterte administration is waging a war of information through the government’s multiple press briefings throughout each day—the Inter-Agency Task Force’s (IATF) in the morning to the Department of Health’s (DOH) in the afternoon to the President’s extemporaneous public addresses late in the evening. By airing these briefings one after the other, Cruz said the government gets to suck the oxygen in the public sphere, making people too bombarded and confused to keep their eyes on the ball.
Meanwhile, critics are met with punitive measures by crafting new bills against dissent like the recently-passed Bayanihan to Heal As One Act. By weaponizing the law, the government is able to legitimize its crackdown against dissidents. This move itself is unconstitutional, argued NUPL’s Deinla, citing Article 3 Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution which states, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech and of expression.”
That it can be exercised without fear is the true measure of free expression, emphasized Deinla.
But free expression has never taken place outside the context of threat. Tracing the exercise of free expression and its impacts throughout history, Raymundo discussed how radical publications, the ones that really challenged oppressive authority, have always operated underground.
Writers have never used free expression for its own sake. From La Solidaridad during the Spanish colonization to the mosquito press during the Martial Law–free expression reveals its anti-colonial roots. Naturally a form of assertion, it was born out of the need for equality and genuine independence.
Which is why contrary to the recent statement of spokesperson Roque, the song called “Iisang Dagat” (One Sea) released by the Chinese Embassy can never be an exercise of free expression because instead of seeking independence and defending Philippine waters, it shamelessly uses music to promote neocolonialism.
Yet inequality exists even in the very act of expression. Antares Gomez Bartolome of CAP discussed accessibility and articulation as indispensable elements of expression. That some people are more articulate and some expressions are more accessible than others proves the way with which to fight oppression has contradictions of its own.
In marginalized areas in the countryside such as the Aeta communities in Tarlac, Pampanga, and Zambales, IP advocate Montalban discussed how she and her team’s immersion program called Project Pisapungan has inspired volunteers to speak in solidarity with the indigenous peoples. The Aeta’s fight against development aggression has always fallen on deaf ears until more people have taken on their struggle for ancestral land and right to self-determination.
In these communities, the act of articulation is itself a struggle, more so while being surrounded with heightened military presence. Accessibility also proves to be challenging–the Aeta’s difficulty of reaching out to us and us to them and their stories. The same goes for the Dumagats of Quezon province, according to Roselle Pineda.
Free expression being done never for its own sake is free expression being done never for oneself. We articulate not only what concerns us but more essentially what concerns those whose rights are trampled upon. In so doing, we empower them to likewise articulate their sentiments and aspirations.