Do Filipinos know how to use their freedom of speech?

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What is up with some modern day proponents of freedom of speech? Do they really know what they are talking about? Sometimes they give me the impression that all they are good at is quoting some dead bigwig who advocated freedom of expression in the past. Unfortunately, these same bigwigs could never have imagined that cyber-bullying would even exist one day.

Nowadays, modern day so-called “advocates” get lost in their own interpretation of what their deceased idols actually meant by “free speech” and worse, they get trapped in their own dogma. It is enough for anyone to suggest that they are averse to evolving with the times.

In theory, it is universally agreed that each individual should have the right to express whatever message he or she wants convey. In reality though, each individual has to be accountable for what he or she says. Freedom of speech advocates always stress that the law protects even the smallest person in the land from being silenced.

The truth is, freedom of speech alone does NOT really protect everyone’s civil liberties. Civil liberties include: the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to defend one’s self, the right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family.

In a lot of instances, speaking too much might even cost people the very freedom they enjoy.

The right to say just about anything publicly can also result in harm to other individuals or group of people. In fact, there are other laws in existence that serve to protect people from unfair attacks coming from those who practice so-called “freedom of speech.” Other laws that protect individuals include anti-bullying and defamation laws. To quote something from the Net: “In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on ‘hate speeches’.”

Freedom of speech is perhaps one of most misunderstood concepts in the world. It is often misunderstood due to people’s many and varied interpretations and applications of the law. It is often misunderstood none more so than in the Philippines. A lot of Filipinos complicate their lives by attempting to deviate from what the founding fathers of the principle of “freedom of speech” were trying to get across. Obviously, the founding fathers were more concerned about suppression of ideas and opinions.

The French Revolution gave way to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which specifically stated:

The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law [author’s boldface].

The operative words are “ideas” and “opinions.” Most Filipinos cannot get around to understanding what constitute what these two words convey. They think that obscenities are included in “ideas” and “opinions.” They also think that attacking an individual for his differing opinion is a good way to practice freedom of expression.

The most important part about the above statement is that every citizen “shall be responsible for this freedom.” This means that we have to acknowledge that there can be possible consequences for what we say. This is another thing that even grown men in the Philippines can’t get around to understanding. Even the First Amendment of the US constitution in 1791 encourages peace and not anarchy:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the United States however, where most proponents and so-called “experts” on free speech reside, Americans are often forced to come to terms with how the First Amendment of the constitution exposes–and protects speech that harms individuals. Some people are saying that the First Amendment has got to protect negative statements as well. But inflicting emotional distress on a person is usually dealt with through a lawsuit. The court of course, determines how “substantial” the distress has to be for it to rule criminal liability. Is the attack severe enough to interfere with schoolwork? Did it drive the victim to suicide? In other words, each case still has to go through the eye of the litigation needle so to speak.

What constitutes Free Speech?

Just about everything we say or write can fall under the banner of “Free Speech.” Someone screaming obscenities can claim that he has the right to utter the offensive words under the guise of civil liberties. However, even if the person uttering obscenities is indeed protected by the most basic human right law, other laws such as defamation and obscenity laws also exists to supposedly protect the reputation of an individual from unfair attack.

A defamation law “is an attempt to balance the private right to protect one’s reputation against the public right to freedom of speech. Defamation law allows people to sue those who say or publish false and malicious comments.” Anything that injures a person’s reputation can be defamatory. Whether it is oral (slander) or written (libel) defamation, a case can be filed against a person if what he said or wrote falls under those two types.

Almost everyone makes defamatory statements almost everyday especially in the Philippines. But it is very rare that the law is invoked against these acts. This is because suing someone is a long, drawn-out and complex battle that could cost thousands in legal fees.

Usually, it is only people or organizations with plenty of cash that can pursue filing defamatory cases against an individual or a group of people. Which is why it is often said that the defamation actions and threats to sue for defamation are often used to try to silence those who criticize people with money and power. Defamatory law might not deter some people from making hate speeches for that reason alone.

Obscenity as defined by Wikepedia is any statement or act which strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time, is a profanity, or is otherwise taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting, or is especially inauspicious.

Censoring obscenities can also become tricky because standards in communities differ – what offends someone from Manila may NOT be something that offends someone from Cebu. The United States created what they call the “Miller Test” or the Three Prong Obscenity Test to determine if the offensive word is really offensive to the average person:

The Miller test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California.

It has three parts:

*Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,

*Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,

*Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

The work is considered obscene only if all three conditions are satisfied.

The first two prongs of the Miller test are held to the standards of the community, and the last prong is held to what is reasonable to a person of the United States as a whole. The national reasonable person standard of the third prong acts as a check on the community standard of the first two prongs, allowing protection for works that in a certain community might be considered obscene but on a national level might have redeeming value.

To be sure, a standard has to be upheld all the time. Below is an example I found of a community standard affirmation:

We further affirm our commitment to:

*Respect the dignity and essential worth of all individuals.
*Promote a culture of respect throughout the University community.
*Respect the privacy, property, and freedom of others.
*Reject bigotry, discrimination, violence, or intimidation of any kind.
*Practice personal and academic integrity and expect it from others.
*Promote the diversity of opinions, ideas and backgrounds which is the lifeblood of the university.

Applying community standards such as the above actually ensures that each individual member of the community can voice their opinion and those who do so are protected from unfair attacks or bullying.

Unfortunately, this concept might be something that is totally alien to a lot of Filipinos. Since that is the case, there are Filipinos who insist that setting up standards or some kind of guidelines is tantamount to suppression of freedom of speech. They even claim that people can say or write offensive language directed at individuals as they please and still be accepted as merely exercising their “freedom of speech.” Never mind that offensive language directed at individuals actually discourages free flow of discussion. You can say that they are being very ignorant of the law. Which is why discussions on forums in the Philippine setting quite often turn into mere noise.

We must resolve to follow the same type of standard to keep up with the rest of the western world and put order in our communities. We cannot continue to run our organizations or communities like the Wild, Wild West and expect progress to happen.

The late freedom of speech advocate and philosopher, Alexander Meiklejohn stated that, “the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary.”

Based on what Meiklejohn said, it is obvious that democracy in the Philippines cannot work. Democracy cannot work because not all the members of the electorate are educated enough to demand information from their public servants. Not only that, our history under authoritarian rule has somehow screwed up the way we enjoy our freedom.

Is Freedom of Speech being abused in the Philippines?

Filipinos have only been enjoying their so-called “freedom” and “democracy” for just a quarter of a century. The late former President Ferdinand Marcos’s Martial Law in 1972 denied the Filipino people their right to assembly and suppressed their basic human right to voice their opinion publicly. In 1986, the so-called People Power “Edsa revolution” supposedly brought back the same rights after being denied for 13 years under the dictator.

Unfortunately, our society’s lack of discipline is very evident in the way most Filipinos practice their right to free speech. It is obvious in the way some Filipinos voice out or suppress their opinion that we have yet to understand the implications of what we say and write. There are Filipinos who think that criticizing the government for its shortfalls is being plain unproductive and should be avoided. On the other hand, there are Filipinos who abuse their right to free speech by spreading all kinds of propaganda against other people — a nefarious activity that transcends class; perpetrated by politicians, celebrities, and ordinary citizens alike.

Some say our national pastime is basketball. I beg to differ. It is actually gossiping. This is evident in the number of celebrity gossip shows on air and how the President of the country’s love life is more important to Filipinos than his economic policies.

If you think about it, the absence of Freedom of Speech for a mere 13 years is not that long. That’s just a little over a decade. It is not enough for us Filipinos to justify why we keep messing up the way we practice the concept considering it is something that we already had over the bigger part of the 20th Century.

But 25 years after Edsa, it seems that Filipinos still struggle with their freedom particularly with their Freedom of Speech. This statement holds true when in 2009, former President Gloria Arroyo had to place Maguindanao province under a state of martial law after 57 people were massacred including 31 members of the media in what was said to be the country’s worst incidence of political violence in history.

The Marcos regime certainly looked peachy compared to that dark episode. For even to this day, it appears that not only do Philippine politicians use the most basic form of censorship in silencing their rivals and their critics, like threats and intimidation, they also use brutal force without hesitation. As the famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw once said, “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” However, there are two sides to a coin. Could it be that our media has become out of control, irresponsible and even abusive after gaining their so-called “freedom?”

Former President Fidel Ramos during his term was one very annoyed person when it came to regarding our own media. He once quipped, “Our press needs to address its quality. It’s too dramatic all the time, too ideological, too much based on rumours and opinions. The writing is good but the reporting is poor. That’s why too many journalists are killed. They concentrate on rumors and melodramatic revelations and derogatory information about people. And their facts are often wrong.

Whether Ramos was right about our journalists’ penchant for exaggeration or not, it still does not justify killing them, of course. But he does have a point about some of them when he implied that they can be unprofessional and worst of all lacking in logic, with the Inquirer.net‘s Conrado de Quiros and Philstar’s William “Billy” Esposo leading the charge in writing almost fairy tale like pieces that, not surprisingly, win the hearts and minds of the gullible public.

You can be forgiven for saying that it was as if 13 years of suppression was enough to push some journalists over the edge of their sanity especially when they write articles quite often alluding to mystical characters like Aragorn and angels and demons for public consumption.

Apparently, even journalists are not above receiving monetary rewards for their stories. Multi-awarded journalist, Maria Ressa wrote about the alleged corruption in the media industry in her own site, Brave New World:

As a journalist, media corruption is a fact of life. Politicians, company officers and government officials have said they’re flabbergasted by the number of journalists on their payrolls. I ask, “why don’t you stop paying and expose them?” They say they can’t because they’re afraid if they don’t pay, they would be attacked. It’s so prevalent the radio guys coined a term for it – “AC-DC” – Attack-Collect-Defend-Collect.

Of course, paying also works in favor of the newsmakers: if they pay, they control what’s written or said about them. They know when it will come out, and what type of exposure and PR they can get. That certainty, for them, is worth paying journalists. So the cycle feeds itself.

Young journalists say “no” because they’re idealistic, but after a while, they start to see the way things really work. They begin to get disillusioned. The lines begin to blur together, particularly since so many of their elders are doing it.

So it seems that the most likely reason why some of our journalists can easily spot who is corrupt is simply because “it takes one to know one.”

With that revelation, it should not come as a surprise that some articles that come out in the mainstream media appear to be too favorable or too against a particular politician. No wonder one can hardly find any “balanced” news in the Philippines’s news and information channels.

That was evident during the most recent presidential election when then Presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino received more coverage than any other candidate in print and online broadsheets. Indeed, no truer is the saying, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” than in the Philippines. It can even guarantee you a seat in Malacanang.

In the Philippines, it is not unusual for even ordinary citizens to say or write defamatory things all the time – a sign that the concept of “freedom of speech” has been highly misconstrued and abused by the citizens themselves. This was of course, very evident again during the most recent presidential election where accusations that qualify as slander and libel were thrown left and right by opposing political parties and their supporters. The worst victims were presidential candidates that were seen as affiliated with former President Gloria Arroyo. Labels like Villaroyo (in reference to Senator Manny Villar) or Gloria’s tuta (in reference to former Senator Dick Gordon) were quite common.

Propaganda and hate speeches are always in full swing during elections in the country. The advent of the Internet and social media made it even easier for Filipino politicians to spread untruths about their opponents. The problem lies when journalists label politicians corrupt even when the latter have not been prosecuted or allegations against them have not been proven in court. Marcos will always be the worst human rights abuser in the history of the Philippines due to uncorroborated stories traveling up and down the grapevine. Arroyo will be forever tainted as a corrupt leader since the incumbent President Noynoy Aquino (PNoy) and his minions keeps saying so.

It is very difficult to rebut statements made in mass media. There have been so many cases where people’s reputations have been destroyed by media attacks in the country. Their presence in the political arena causes much distress to some of the parties involved. Each and every Senate inquiry turns into a circus because the politicians use the supposedly “inquiry-only” session as an opportunity to intimidate or harass their supposedly invited “guest”. Due to the presence of the media, some former two-bit actor and even former rebel-soldier-turned-Senators appear to give the best performance of their life for the cameras.

Just to cite an instance when the above scenario occurred, Former Secretary and retired General Angelo Reyes was driven to suicide due to a witch-hunt like inquiry in the Senate earlier this year concerning alleged corruption in the Philippine military. Reyes knew all too well that once your reputation is shattered, it is futile to pick up the pieces. To an old man, it was such a daunting and pointless task to clear his name, as far as he was concerned.

In Philippine society, even the sins of the father are handed down to the son. This was evident when singer and songwriter Jim Paredes tried to pick a fight with the son of former President Marcos, Bong Bong on the social networking site, Twitter. It’s as if Bong Bong himself had been prosecuted for whatever alleged crimes his father committed.

Obviously, the kind of environment perpetuated by our very own media does not foster harmony. It does encourage distrust among members of the community and our public servants. Which is why it is hard for our society to achieve unity.

To achieve harmony, we must set up systems of communication that will force people to take responsibility for their statements, have the opportunity to make corrections and apologies, and lose credibility if they are repeatedly exposed as untrustworthy. Most of all, we must resolve to uphold the highest standards in practicing our freedom of speech.

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