Most people know how hostile the police are to free expression, but are probably not aware that the police have no right to free speech–or so the alleged President of the Philippines says.

Addressing the graduating class of the Philippine National Police Academy last Wednesday, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that there’s not only a Supreme Court ruling, but even a series of decisions that say that “if you have a right to hold guns, you surrender your right to free speech.”

An attempt to research on the subject yielded negative results, the material on the police and free speech I found being uniformly about cases in which the Supreme Court struck down government attempts to curtail free speech by, of course, using the police and the military to do so. But I’m not a lawyer, and it’s possible that there indeed is a Supreme Court ruling somewhere declaring policemen exempt from the Bill of Rights. Maybe it’s this Court that said it, or the Davide Court. I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

In any event, it’s an interesting proposition by itself. But the context in which Mrs. Arroyo said it was also telling.

The police and the military are mandated by law to carry guns in this country to protect what’s usually referred to as the state and even “the democratic way of life,” but which in practice refers to people like Mrs. Arroyo and the rest of the economic and political elite. What’s interesting is that, according to Mrs. Arroyo, police and military men lose some of their most basic rights as citizens once they join the uniformed services.

Mrs. Arroyo in fact went even farther. Invoking the need for discipline–which she equates with obedience to the “chain of command” (meaning her)–Mrs. Arroyo quoted several lines from the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem “Charge of the Light Brigade,” with which most high school students are familiar. Among the lines, which I am quoting as they appear in Tennyson’s poem, are: “Their’s not to reason why/Their’s but to do or die.” Mrs. Arroyo, however, did not quote the earlier lines, which go: “Forward, the Light Brigade!/ Was there a man dismay’d? /Not tho’ the soldiers knew/ Some one had blunder’d.”

The charge was a blunder, all right. The poem describes the charge at Balaclava, Russia, on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War when some 600 British cavalry troops charged a Russian position. The Russians concentrated cannon and machine gun fire on the attackers, and about half of the troops and most of their horses were killed.

While Tennyson was praising “the six hundred” for their courage and devotion to duty, the charge has been described as “ill advised”, “not war but suicide,” and even “disastrous” since it achieved no military purpose. The culprits in this senseless charge were the British commanders, who had flung their troops at the Russian position despite the certainty of their being massacred. The charge has in fact gone down in history as one of the most telling indications of the stupidity of war.

Although it does imply that “leaders” aren’t always right, and may in fact be incredibly senseless, the poem itself was never popular in its time. But it has since become the staple of high school literature classes in this country, where, complete with dramatic gestures, it is usually declaimed by would-be orators. The stupidity of the charge is of course seldom noted.. That Mrs. Arroyo should have cited the poem at all, incidentally, adds to the suspicion that most of her speeches, if not all, are written by dolts just out of high school.

But you get the picture. Mrs. Arroyo was saying that police and military people simply have to obey orders, period, regardless of whether those orders are unlawful or not. They may not protest or criticize either, and most specifically should they not criticize her and her government.

Mrs. Arroyo echoed similar claims to infallibility other dictators and would be dictators as well as their underlings have made ever since human beings went to war. It also fits right in with the usual police and military excuse for committing various atrocities including genocide. Hitler’s killers excused themselves by saying they were just following orders, for example, as do the US soldiers who’re killing women and children in Iraq today. And, of course, the Philippine police and the military also excuse themselves from any moral culpability in, say, the killing of civilians in the countryside by claiming that they’re simply following orders.

Which brings us to the context in which Mrs. Arroyo made this claim. In addition to the usual appeal for support by reminding her listeners how much she’s done for the police and what she’s still doing for it, the other thrust of Mrs. Arroyo’s speech was to warn the police not to join any attempt to oust her from power. Given that context, her warning that policemen (and the military) do not have free speech implies that she regards free speech as part of any such conspiracy.

That she identifies free speech with coup and other attempts against her Mrs. Arroyo has many times made abundantly clear. Mrs. Arroyo muzzled her own officials through Executive Order 464, which prohibits them from testifying before Congress without her permission. She has also banned public demonstrations through her “no-permit- no rally” and Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR) policies, and she continues to harass the press so as to force it into silence.

But Mrs. Arroyo’s Police Academy speech last Wednesday gives us another glimpse into the mental processes of the most powerful official in the land, and helps explain further why she does what she does. But the crucial question is whether the police and the military are buying what she says about their diminished rights. Given the divisions within these politicized institutions, it’s a sure bet that some of them aren’t.

Business Mirror

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *