[ANALYSIS] Duterte crushes free expression amid pandemic

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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[ANALYSIS] Duterte crushes free expression amid pandemic
Journalists fight bigger battle

We commemorate World Press Freedom Day in a vastly different context, amid a universal experience that is setting limits to mobility and privacy. But in some countries, the limits are crushing a fundamental right: freedom of expression. The Philippines, unfortunately, is one of these countries.

Freedom of expression is the overarching right on which freedom of the press is anchored. In this time of the coronavirus, journalists are being called on to fight a bigger battle as we face the twin perils of Duterte’s authoritarian rule and the pandemic.

The recent crackdown on netizens for their social media posts supposedly critical of government, including the arrest of a film writer for her satirical message on Cebu and the coronavirus, and the labor department’s threat to have a Filipino worker in Taiwan deported for her anti-Duterte posts on Facebook are sending chills to the public.

What is being attacked is our freedom to speak up, to engage in discussions, to give our opinions on a range of issues, from the controversial and contentious to the safe and quiet. What happens then to our cherished freedom to express our ideas, a core value of our democracy?

As Antonio Carpio, retired Supreme Court senior associate justice and an authority on constitutional law, wrote in his Inquirer column:

“It is in times of grave crisis like the ongoing…pandemic that our freedom of expression is in danger of being sacrificed in the altar of public order. It is timely to remind ourselves that we must defend our freedom of expression staunchly as we are defending our lives against COVID-19.”

People and virus are enemies

Bill Gates wrote that “this is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side. The coronavirus pandemic pits all of humanity against the virus.”

But authoritarian leaders like President Duterte don’t see things this way. In Duterte’s mind, people are as much the enemy as the virus. This stems from his narrow world view whereby he sees the pandemic from a single lens: that of public order.

That’s why we are witnessing the heavy hand of the police during a crisis that demands an extensive public health response. More people have been arrested, warned, and fined for violating the quarantine (136,517 as of April 20) than those who have been tested (almost 90,000 as of April 28).

Activists who were on their way to distribute relief goods in Bulacan were likewise arrestedMoreover, they were charged with sedition. Found in their vehicle were old issues of a publication for farmers.

Already, one life has been lost. Winston Ragos, a former solider, was shot dead by the police when he supposedly attempted to breach the lockdown.

This happened after Duterte set the tone when he ordered the police and the military to kill quarantine violators. “Shoot them dead,” the President said, angered by poor residents of Quezon City who had earlier protested and asked for food aid.

‘Fake news’

Within this forbidding atmosphere, new and old laws are being used to go after people who criticize Duterte and his response to the coronavirus outbreak. The recently passed Bayanihan Law, which endowed the President with special powers to deal with the pandemic, opened the floodgates to the state to go after those who spread “false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms…”

Apart from this, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is using an old law, Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, to summon more than a dozen netizens for their posts on social media. This law punishes the publication of “any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.”

As if these were not enough, the zealous Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra issued an order  on February 4 authorizing the NBI to investigate “alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and fake news” related to the coronavirus.

Here’s the irony: no less than President Duterte and his health secretary, Francisco Duque, have made false claims on the coronavirus. You can read them here and here. (You can find more of Rappler’s fact checks in this section.)

Protected speech

Two high-profile cases have added to the chilling effect of this crackdown: the arrest of a Cebu artist and the threat to have a Filipino worker in Taiwan deported.

Bambi Beltran, a film writer in Cebu, was arrested without a warrant after she posted on Facebook that “9,000+ new cases (all from Zapatera) of Covid-19 in Cebu City in one day. We are now the epicenter in the whole solar system.” 

This is a hyperbole, a technique used in satire. Obviously, the authorities didn’t get it.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has asked Taiwan to deport Elanel Egot Ordidor, a Filipina caregiver working there, for what DOLE called her attempts on social media to “discredit and malign” President Duterte, “destabilize the government” and “…cause hatred amidst the global health crisis.”

Thankfully, Taiwan upheld the worker’s right to free speech and rejected the labor department’s request. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on April 27 that  “Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country where foreign workers enjoy ‘citizen treatment,’ and their rights and interests are protected by relevant laws and regulations, including freedom of speech, which should be respected by governments of all countries…”

Clear and present danger’

Amid this frenzy of clamping down, authorities should be reminded of freedom-of-expression cases the Supreme Court has decided. The Court has set 4 instances when the State may impose punishment, Justice Carpio wrote: pornography, false or misleading advertisement, advocacy of imminent lawless action, and danger to national security.

The paramount consideration is that any statement should pose “clear and present danger of an evil that the State has a right and duty to prevent.” This is a high bar to hurdle.

With a government that puts public order on a pedestal, above everything else, it is up to us to protect a freedom we hold dear. – Rappler.com

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.