A relic of martial law

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THE Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) was created by Ferdinand Marcos through Presidential Decree 1986 in 1985. It replaced the Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television, which Marcos had reorganized out of the old Board of Censors for Motion Pictures.

There were seven justifications mentioned in the PD for the creation of the MTRCB, among them the claimed need to undertake “remedial measures” to prevent the economic collapse of the movie and television industries. A regulatory body, the PD also declared, should not be limited to reviewing and censoring films or television programs, but must also work to improve the movie and television industries “as one source of fueling the national economy.”

No one mentions it nowadays, but the decree also premised the participation of representatives of the movie and television industries in the MTRCB on the possibility of self-regulation. It declared that their involvement could be “a prelude to self-regulation and policing by the (industry) members themselves once they have demonstrated their maturity, self-reliance and dependability.

The powers and functions of the MTRCB, however, were far from conducive to the making of a self-regulatory regime in movies and television. Empowered to review all motion pictures and television programs, including publicity materials and trailers, the MTRCB can prohibit their export, import, distribution, sale and exhibition , as well as delete portions from them on the basis of their being “objectionable for being immoral, indecent, contrary to law and good customs, injurious to the prestige of the Republic of the Philippines or its people, or with a dangerous tendency to encourage the commission of violence or of wrong or crime…” The Board was supposed to be a ratings board and was also empowered to rate movies and television programs on the basis of what age groups could see them. Its “X” rating, however, bans the movie or television program so rated from public exhibition.

The decree today reads exactly like the instrument of dictatorship that it was then. Like every dictatorship, the Marcos regime presumed that it had a monopoly on what was right for the country and its people, whom it presumed to be as immature and as incapable of discernment as five- year- olds.

One of dictatorship’s most favored means of proving and demonstrating its self-proclaimed wisdom, and by implication, the lack of it among its subject people, is the control of information in whatever form. The Marcos tyranny was no exception, but by the time Marcos issued PD 1986 it was already displaying signs of regime fatigue. It could cope only haphazardly with the challenge of the alternative press, for example. And it was rarely successful in curbing street protests.

In the context of the times and the events of 1986 when the regime was overthrown, the attempt to further tighten control over movies and television seems as pathetic as King Canute’s attempt to stop the sea from invading his kingdom. The fall of Marcos barely a year after PD 1986 was after all followed by the supposed return of democracy and the adoption of a Constitution which, among other virtues, declares that no law may be passed abridging press freedom and free expression.

So why is a censorship board still in place despite the country’s alleged return to democratic rule 26 years ago? Like dengue and those other great mysteries of our time — such as why the networks insist on interviewing Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and why the most brazen acts of corruption, violations of human rights and the killing of journalists keep happening in these fiesta isles — the MTRCB still plagues us. In the last 27 years since it was created, it has reared its ugly head often to undermine free expression and the right to receive information free men and women are entitled to by, among other acts, attempting to delete ‘offensive material” from Schindler’s List, which material consisted of footage of Jews being led naked to the gas chambers, to the nakedness of which MTRCB worthies objected; preventing the exhibition of The Last Temptation of Christ because of scenes in which Christ imagines himself married; and of Lino Brocka’s Ora Pro Nobis because it dared argue that human rights violations persist despite EDSA 1. Among the TV programs it has banned from airing is a biography of Joseph Estrada. It has also threatened to ban any television program on lesbian relationships.

Its most recent act was to suspend the TV5 program “T3” from airing after TV 5 had suspended its hosts, the brothers Ben, Erwin and Raffy Tulfo, for their thinly-veiled threats and expletives against actors Raymart Santiago and Claudine Barretto, who had figured in that scuffle at terminal three of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport with the Tulfo brothers’ oldest, Ramon.

The “T3” program has had its share of complaints from the public, and is by no means in the same category of excellence as most of the movies and television programs the MTRCB has banned in the past. But its suspension and TV5’s response arguing that it had already disciplined the brothers in furtherance of self-regulation do remind us all not only of the MTRCB’s censorship powers and those powers’ being in conflict with Article III Section 4 of the Philippine 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.”), but also of the lateness of the hour as far as self-regulation in movies is concerned.

Free expression and media advocacy groups, and film schools like the University of the Philippines Film Institute, have argued for the abolition of the MTRCB for at least two decades, and after 27 years it’s not only about time, but also for the sake of free expression that a purely ratings board (meaning without censorship powers) be created in its place. THAT would be a meaningful step towards developing in movies the self-regulatory regime that’s already in place in broadcasting and print.

Granted that the mechanisms of self-regulation are flawed and media observance erratic and selective. Those mechanisms can be tweaked, and media observance improved. The bottom line is that not only is self-regulation in the media the only system consistent with the Constitution, it is also the only form of regulation human experience has found to be the most favorable to the development of the many forms of free expression including motion pictures that are available. An archaic relic of martial law repression, the MTRCB has to go.

(BusinessWorld)

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