[OPINION] What do we risk when free speech is suppressed?

Clara Rita Padilla
'The Philippines and the rest of the world would not be in this mess if we had immediate access to Dr Li's crucial information'

Remember how Dr Li, the doctor who first spoke up about the coronavirus in Wuhan, was reprimanded by the local police authorities? That is a clear example of curtailment of freedom of speech. 

The Philippines and the rest of the world would not be in this mess if we had immediate access to his crucial information. People would not be dying, hungry, jobless, stuck with their batterers or rapists in their very own homes, or easily falling prey to sex traffickers. 

This is how the whole world is at risk when basic freedoms of speech and of the press are suppressed.

When women are battered by their husbands or partners, it is because their abusive partners stifle them.

When women are unable to say no to sex, perpetrators rape them to sadistic silence.

When abused Filipino women are unable to divorce their abusive husbands, their cries to escape their tormentors are muffled by the failure of a legal system to heed their call.

When women and girls are denied access to sexuality education, contraceptive supplies and services, and access to safe abortion, their right to self-determination is curtailed, leading to high maternal deaths and morbidity due to unwanted pregnancies and complications from unsafe abortions. (READ: [OPINION] It’s time for the Philippines to decriminalize abortion)

When women and girls end up raising children too early or have too many of them, their fears become day-to-day realities as they end up hungry, poor, and ignored despite cardboard signs they clasp in the heat of the sun screaming for a morsel of food to eat.  

When lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and asexual people are killed for their activism, beaten by their own parents, discriminated against in law, and not allowed to marry, their basic rights to life and freedom to express their diverse sexual orientation and gender identities are forbidden by a judgmental society that knows only gender binaries and imposes oppressive religious morals on others.

When transgender people are not recognized by law, diverse gender identities are outlawed.

When employees are not allowed to unionize and are forbidden to speak out, their collective voices are repressed.

When workers do not receive proper wages and benefits, pleas of those who sweat and toil are neglected.

When hungry people in the streets are beaten up, hunger pangs are quickly and painfully subdued. (READ: ‘Walang-wala na’: Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)

When news reporters and commentators are killed and news agencies face all sorts of legal cases threatening their existence, the right to press freedom is thwarted.

When health staff call foul and suddenly find themselves on floating status, their critical opinions are muted.

When dissenters are imprisoned, democracy and all our basic human rights are endangered.

Surely, the Philippines and the rest of the world deserve much more than this.

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on strengthening our health systems, providing the necessary personal protective gear to health workers, setting up protocols on social distancing, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, addressing gender-based violence, creating new jobs for the unemployed, and finding ways to effectively address environmental concerns and wildlife protection amid human rights protection.

We need all voices to be heard not just in this crucial time of COVID-19 but all the time. This is what freedom is about. – Rappler.com 

Clara Rita Padilla is a human rights lawyer who has been working for over 26 years helping women, including women with disabilities, indigenous women, and Bangsamoro women, people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identities, and workers. She is the founder and executive director of EnGendeRights.