Secretary of Justice Raul Gonzalez is correct. Despite the lifting of Proclamation 1017 last March 3, the laws on sedition, inciting to sedition and libel remain in place. Gonzalez was answering questions on why the government was still monitoring the media, particularly seven print and broadcast journalists, for possible violation of Article 142–inciting to sedition–of the Revised Penal Code.

But while, as Gonzalez said, those laws remain in place, it is decision and policy makers who interpret them and other laws that have a bearing on free expression. Such laws may be interpreted according to their spirit or their letter, or liberally or restrictively.

The sedition and inciting to sedition laws have been consistently interpreted as restrictive of free expression. During the US colonial period, they were used to prosecute those who, in fighting for Philippine independence through means of expression other than arms, questioned the legitimacy of US rule in the Philippines.

Amended since then, Article 142 penalizes with six months’ imprisonment and a fine any person who, “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, cartoons, banners, or other representations,” or who utters “seditious words or speeches, write(s), publish(es), or circulate(s) scurrilous libels against the Government (of the United States or the Government of the Commonwealth) of the Philippines, or any of the duly constituted authorities thereof…”

Inciting to sedition “utterances” include those “which tend to disturb or obstruct any lawful officer in executing the functions of his office, or which tend to instigate others to cabal and meet together for unlawful purposes, or which suggest or incite rebellious conspiracies or riots, or which lead or tend to stir up the people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community, the safety and order of the Government, or who shall knowingly conceal such evil practices.”

Together with the laws on sedition and libel, Article 142 is obviously a constraint on free expression in general. Governments argue that such laws are necessary to prevent the abuse of free expression. The libel law, for example, prevents media practitioners and other individuals from ridiculing and/or damaging the reputations of others, while the inciting to sedition law would insure that free expression is not used to sow chaos.

These laws do serve a legitimate purpose. If the media could call crime suspects murderers, thieves and kidnappers even before conviction, and at their pleasure urge others to support conspiracies, not only their subjects would suffer but society as well.

But it is also true that such laws have been used for less than noble ends. The libel law has thus been used to harass media practitioners with whose views the powerful don’t agree, as several landmark Philippine cases demonstrate. One of the most recent cases involved Daily Tribune editor Ninez Cacho Olivarez, whom Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s lawyers sued for libel several years ago. She would have spent a weekend in jail had she not been able to post bail, the warrant for her arrest–libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines–having been issued on a Friday.

Libel suits against media practitioners have also involved demands for huge sums in damages. One senator sued a columnist for libel several years ago and demanded P10 million in damages. And, of course, most media practitioners are familiar with former President Joseph Estrada’s P100 million libel suit against the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times. Mass media groups have thus sought the decriminalization of libel as well as the imposition of a ceiling on claims for damages to minimize their use for the harassment of journalists.

The laws on inciting to sedition and sedition have had a long history of silencing government critics. But Filipinos who survived martial law should most remember how those laws, together with the now repealed Anti-Subversion Law (RA 1700) were used during that period.

Not only journalists but also student, farmer and labor leaders, opposition politicians, academics, nuns and priests who may have published or said anything “tending” to “stir up the people” were arrested and detained under those laws. Amended several times since the US colonial period, the inciting to sedition and sedition laws have survived because every government since then has found them useful in curbing protest and criticism.

That these laws exist does not make them just or of benefit to the country, its people and democracy. The broad applicability of Article 142, for example, is a continuing threat to the free press and to free expression, and is in that sense contrary to the Constitutional protection given those freedoms. Meanwhile, the decriminalization of libel and the fixing of limits to the amount of damages complainants may demand would go a long way in lessening the harassment value of the libel law.

But amending such laws will not guarantee their not being used for repression. That decision in the end rests on policy and decision makers, and the chief policy and decision maker in this country is Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who happens to be the country’s de facto president. It all comes down to a matter of policy and its implementation. Is it government policy to suppress free expression to serve whatever purposes it has in mind regardless of its impact on the country’s claims to being a democracy, or is it its policy to encourage free expression as necessary to democratization?

Certainly the people have a say on the matter in democracies, and many groups including the media did oppose the policy of repression obvious in Proclamation 1017, General Order 5, and the government acts that followed them. But when democracy itself is under threat, and governments heed masters other than the people, their views would be merely incidental.

Significantly enough, there is speculation that Mrs. Arroyo “lifted” Proclamation 1017 due to US pressure. But she also did so in virtual imitation of Ferdinand Marcos’ “lifting” of martial law in 1981 in that despite the lifting, the restrictions of 1017 remain.

In the present instance it was apparently less the people’s demands that mattered than those of the US and Mrs. Arroyo’s own perceived self-interests. Mrs. Arroyo has learned to ignore the Filipino people’s views, which she probably finds unpleasant. She was thus listening to other voices last Friday, and those voices were saying lift the Proclamation, but let its effects stay.

(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.

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