Filipino artists

Artist sued for causing pollution over burning effigy, wins big for free speech

Jairo Bolledo

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Artist sued for causing pollution over burning effigy, wins big for free speech

ART PROTEST. Max Santiago, BAYAN's resident artist, join a protest on September 5, 2023. He faced complaints over his "doble-kara" effigy depicting President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as a "two-faced" leader.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

'We already knew that it's a harassment case because we've been, we’re doing effigies for so long already,' BAYAN resident artist Max Santiago tells Rappler, highlighting the complaints against him were meant to harass him

MANILA, Philippines – Longtime artist Max Santiago has been making effigies for twenty years, but for the second State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, he was sued for the first time over his art – with police getting creative by framing the burning of his latest effigy as a violation of the solid waste and clean air acts.

A Quezon City prosecutor dismissed the complaints in November, served to him on December 13. A “landmark free speech case” said Santiago’s lawyer Tony La Viña who got on board lawyers from the Manila Observatory to navigate the intersection of environmental law and free speech for this case.

“Well, on the onset, we already knew that it’s a harassment case because we’ve been, we’re doing effigies for so long already. So, impluwensya talaga ng (So it’s really influenced by) harassment, ready to stifle freedom of expression,” Santiago told Rappler.

Adult, Male, Man
‘DOBLE KARA.’ Militant groups march along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City and burn this effigy as a sign of protest ahead of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s second State of the Nation Address, on July 24, 2023. Alecs Ongal/ Rappler

For the 20 years that he’s been an artist, Santiago has also been making effigies to burn, a staple event in every large demonstration especially presidents’ SONAs. Setting effigies on fire has been around since the time of the dictatorship under Marcos Jr’s father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Ito ‘yong first time. Ito ‘yong talagang first time na nangyari ito, related doon sa art na ginagawa tuwing SONA (State of the Nation Address). This is [also] the very first time na nangyari ‘yong nasampahan [ng complaints ang] effigies ko,” Santiago said.

(This was the first time. This was really the first time that this happened, to the art we do for SONA. This was also the first time that my effigies faced complaints.)

The lawsuit against Santiago sent a chilling signal to the community of artists, especially the progressives who use their art as a medium of resistance. There is still a pending complaint against Santiago for the same incident, but for violation of the public assemblies act.

After nga nito, nagkaroon ng parang chilling effect at work. Kung halimbawa, magkaroon ng negative na decision ‘yong QC prosecutor, magkakaroon ng impact do’n sa mga susunod na protest. So, siyempre, isipin mo na eh, kung ano ‘yong pwedeng gawin,” Santiago said.

(After the complaints, there was chilling effect at work. If ever the QC prosecutor will rule negatively, this will have an impact on the upcoming protests. So of course, we will now have to think what we can do about it.)

Magdalawang-isip mga artist, magkakaroon ng parang self-censorship. ‘Hindi ko na lang gagawin ito, kasi baka kasuhan ako ng pulis eh.’ So, ‘yon ‘yong magiging impact no’n eh (The artists will now think twice, there will be self-censorship. They will think like this: I will not do this because the cops might file complaints against me. So that would be the impact of this case),” Santiago added.

Free speech

The resolution of Assistant City Prosecutor Kathleen Aseron-Casimiro wa narrow. Nowhere does she mention free speech even if Santiago invoked it in his defense.

In a short 5-page resolution, Casimiro said that the police complainants did not prove that they had direct knowledge of the burning of the effigy.

“There is no document that would support a finding that the burning of the ‘doble kara’ effigy is tantamount to incineration,” the resolution said. Incineration, or burning of hazardous material, is a crime under the clean air act.

Still, La Viña said the resolution “marks a critical moment in upholding the right to free expression and combating legal harassment.”

“The prosecutors’ refusal to pursue charges without substantial evidence is a testament to the integrity of our legal system and the importance of protecting democratic principles,” said La Viña.

BAYAN secretary-general Raymond Palatino told Rappler that while they were relieved that the complaint against Santiago was dismissed, he asserted that the filing of the complaint was wrong in the first place.

Palatino reiterated that the complaints against their resident artist was meant to “instill fear” among artists and discourage them from expressing solidarity in the cause they believe in.

Santiago was sued just before he got married.

“The cases filed against him happened just before his wedding, and of course caused a bit of distress, but nothing he and our group could not address. He is a visual artist and any effort to stifle his main form of expression, of course strikes at his very being, as well as the collective which he belongs to,” BAYAN president Renato Reyes, who has worked with Santiago since the 1990s, told Rappler.

“We are proud that Max stood his ground and he remained defiant. I have to mention that he has been attending his hearing while preparing for his wedding. He even appeared at the prosecutor’s office a day before his wedding,” Palatino said.

Why is this a crucial case?

Santiago’s case was an example of the government’s crackdown against progressive individuals, particularly those involved in staging protests and rallies. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, 10 members of LGBTQIA+ rights group Bahaghari, eight from other progressive groups, and two drivers were arrested after holding a pride march in Mendiola in Manila.

Later that year, the Manila prosecutor’s office junked the complaint, marking the progressive group’s victory against the crackdown that detained them. –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.