A vicious proposal

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There are two things wrong with the proposal to amend Section 4 of Article III of the 1987 Constitution to read thus “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of 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.”

The first is that the phrase the Consultative Commission wants inserted, “the responsible exercise of” etc., is totally unnecessary.

If, in the exercise of the right of free speech, someone were to urge his or her listeners to attack Malacanang, or to bar all entrances to the House of Representatives, he or she could be hauled off to court on a charge of sedition. .

A film-maker in his or her exercise of the right to free expression who makes a movie that can be accused of being pornographic can similarly be taken to court under the provisions of the country’s obscenity laws. His or her film may not even make it that far. The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) can delete portions of the film it considers objectionable, and even ban its exhibition by giving it an “X” rating.

A journalist who ridicules another person, or accuses him of a crime or of having an infectious disease, can be charged with libel, sentenced to a prison term, and fined. In addition, the journalist can be taken to task by the self-regulatory mechanisms of print and broadcast media, among them the Philippine Press Institute and the Kapisanang ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP—Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines).
Advertising is also governed by a detailed Code of Ethics in addition to being subject to pertinent Philippine laws relating to libel and obscenity.

Not only is there a legion of laws applicable to the various mass media as well as the exercise of free speech, assembly and expression. There are also various codes and regulations meant to assure the responsible exercise of press freedom.

But its being unnecessary is the lesser of the evils that the proposal, contained in the draft Constitution being proposed by the Malacanang-created Consultative Commission on Constitutional Amendments, would unleash on whatever remains of Philippine democracy.

Free speech, free expression and a free press are universally regarded as indispensable to democracy and democratization. These are the rights that, together with free and honest elections, put substance in people’s sovereignty by assuring the people that they will get not only information on what the government is doing, but that they can also oppose, support, or criticize and make suggestions on, government policies and actions. A free press is especially crucial. In addition to providing the public with the information it needs, a free press can also help that same public understand what government is doing.

These rights are meant to assure government transparency and openness, as well as citizen involvement in their own governance. This is the rationale for the special protection the Constitution provides the press, as well as free speech, expression, and assembly. Thus the clarity of Section 4, Article III: “No law may be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances.”

But despite the superiority of the Constitution above all laws, the Arroyo regime has been specially focused on circumventing this provision, primarily because free speech and expression, as well as freedom of assembly and the free press, have been instrumental in providing the public information vital to the latter’s capacity to decide whether Mrs. Arroyo and company indeed stole the 2004 elections.

For example, the National Telecommunications Commission last year required prior approval of TV public affairs programs. The NBI raided a printing press for supposedly printing seditious materials. Earlier, the police arrested three young men putting up “anti-Arroyo” posters in Quezon City.

A number of bills were also introduced in the House of Representatives that uniformly would have curtailed press freedom and free expression. The Calibrated Pre-emptive Response and no permit, no rally policies effectively prevented or dispersed several attempts to “petition the government for redress of grievances,” while Executive Order 464 prevented government officials from testifying in Congressional inquiries. Not coincidentally were these meant to call the Arroyo regime to account for the fraudulence of the May 2004 elections.

And of course there were the killings of unarmed political activists in the Philippine countryside—activists who included priests and lawyers, students and farmers’ leaders, even judges. These happened despite Constitutional protection.

Although there is no evidence of government involvement in the killing of journalists, meanwhile, from their statements there was no mistaking where the sympathies of police officials lay. A number of them justified the killings by saying some of those killed were corrupt, or poorly- trained. One police official said outright that whenever he saw journalists he wanted to kill them.

In testimony to the fragility of Philippine democracy, these occurred despite the protection of Section 4 of Article III. One can reasonably imagine what can happen once the phrase “the responsible exercise of” is added to that Section. It would mean that laws abridging the irresponsible exercise of press freedom could then be passed. What constitutes irresponsible exercise of free speech, etc., the lawmakers will define– perhaps to mean, say, criticism of government policies, thus giving the authoritarian impulses of this government and its police and military forces the Constitutional bases for curtailing free expression, free speech and press freedom.

I leave to others the exploration of the further implications of this irresponsible proposal. Those implications are so far-ranging, however, that all media organizations, professional associations, media advocacy groups, as well as every sector to which free speech and free expression are vital, must unite against this vicious attempt—unprecedented since the country’s independence was recognized in 1946—to curtail fundamental rights.

(Business Mirror)

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