By John Nery
First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Oct 30, 2018 and accessible at: https://opinion.inquirer.net/117097/a-dangerous-time
In New York, tracking the terrible arc of online abuse becoming offline violence, I am reminded again and again that the hostility in the air is familiar. In the Philippines, under a foul-mouthed, free-associating, force-worshipping President, the same potential for a tragic escalation also exists. Last May, to keynote the Philippine Journalism Research Conference, I spoke about one aspect of the danger, focusing on ‘hyped-up hostility’ against journalists. Allow me to share excerpts:
What does it mean to be a journalist, or to do journalism research, in the Duterte era?
It means fighting back against ‘fake news’ and other forms of disinformation. It means doing journalism at a time of hyped-up hostility against journalists. And it means countering the brazen lies about journalism, press freedom and free speech that President Duterte and his subordinates propagate. These lies become myths, and are used to justify all manner of suppression of dissent and criticism. We must, all of us, each of us, debunk them.
[On May 2], the President said he rejects any attempt to recall the cancellation of Sister Patricia Fox’s visa. Among other justifications he offered, he said this: “Sabi ko, anybody can criticize me, ’wag lang foreigner.
In the first place, you and I know that he cannot stand criticism per se, and especially if it comes from women. That is why Sen. Leila de Lima is in detention; that is why Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales was threatened with impeachment; and that is why Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is facing ouster, through rankly unconstitutional means, from the Supreme Court.
Secondly: There is no record to show that Sister Patricia Fox ever criticized Duterte. What we do have is proof that she expressed her solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable, with political prisoners, indigenous peoples, workers on strike. If that is criticism, then religious injunctions to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned are, in Duterte’s view, essentially antidemocratic.
And thirdly: Why should we, why should anyone, forbid criticism from foreigners? This question is profoundly an issue of free speech, and journalists and students of journalism should pay close attention. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Philippines was one of the early signatories, lists free speech as one of our ‘inalienable’ rights.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
We are clear that Sister Patricia Fox did not engage in any direct criticism of Duterte—but even if she did, she certainly had the right to, and Duterte should have respected that. As journalists and students of journalism, we must actively resist the easy populism behind the idea that “criticism from foreigners is not welcome.” Criticism, regardless of color or stripe, is one of the functions of free speech; to prohibit criticism (or, indeed, to retaliate against critics) is to attack the fundamental right of free speech.
To be sure, avoidance of criticism is only a natural reaction, but when was it elevated to state policy?
One more brazen lie from President Duterte: On Jan. 16 this year, he ranted against Rappler, and pointedly told Palace reporter Pia Ranada: “Don’t abuse [press freedom] too much. It’s a privilege in a democratic state. You have overused and abused that privilege in the guise of press freedom.”
In the first place, he is talking in circles. To follow his logic, we can rephrase his remarks thus: “You have abused the privilege of press freedom in the guise of press freedom.” This is only another indication that President Duterte, when he is consumed by anger, does not think his thoughts through.
Secondly, holding the government and other powers that be to account is not abuse of press freedom, but rather the very definition of it. The freedom of the press is best understood as part of the constitutional order of checks and balances, for the democratic project to survive. It is meant precisely to inform the public from which a government derives its mandate and its authority, and thus the public agenda that can help shape the policy agenda.
Thirdly, press freedom is not a privilege in a democratic state; it is an inalienable right, guaranteed by our Constitution, and ennobled by the sacrifices of our heroes. The Constitution is clear. Article III—a set of provisions known collectively as the ‘Bill of Rights’, not the Bill of Privileges—Section 4 uses language that goes back to the 1935 Constitution: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Again, Mr. Duterte resorts to the easy populism that lies behind the idea that media institutions have overused and abused press freedom. The unfortunate reality is that abuse of press freedom happens. But let us be clear: Even if it happens—and it doesn’t happen the way President Duterte would have Filipinos believe it happens — that is still no excuse to demote the right to a free press to a mere privilege.
John Nery is Associate Editor and Opinion Columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.