Democracy & Disinformation

FULL TEXT: Amal Clooney’s 3 propositions for a functioning democracy

Amal Clooney
'What we must remember is that a clampdown on critics – a silencing of dissent – is not a sign of strength but the ultimate sign of weakness'

The following speech was delivered by international law and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney at the Management Association of the Philippines’ (MAP) 18th International CEO Web Conference on September 15, 2020.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for inviting me to address you today at this important conference. Let me start by saying that I hope everybody is staying safe and healthy. I was due to travel to Manila just before lockdown and I hope that I will be able to visit your beautiful country again once restrictions can safely be lifted.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are living through a time of crisis, and in such times reporting the truth is more important than ever. Information about the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic could have saved thousands of lives. Silencing journalists and others who tried to report on the virus was deadly as it allowed the disease to spread while people were in the dark. And all over the world as truth is being suppressed – false information proliferates instead. In my view this puts not only public health but also the future of democracy on the line.

It may sound grandiose or alarmist to speak in such terms. Surely, you may be thinking, democracy is not under threat around the world. Yet studies have found that one third of the world’s population lives in a backsliding democracy. The University of Gothenburg’s democracy institute reports that “[d]emocracy [is] in decline in more countries than ever before.” And Freedom House reports that democratic freedoms have been in decline for over a decade in both open societies and authoritarian states alike. I would say that democracy is under threat in any country where the judiciary is not independent; or where freedom of the press is not cherished and protected as an utmost priority. 

This is the first of 3 propositions I’d like to put to you today: that you cannot have a functioning democracy without a free press. And I’d like to illustrate this with a case I am involved in in the Philippines. The case of Maria Ressa, and Rappler, the news site Maria set up that over 10 million people now routinely access and read. Maria is a renowned journalist: a Filipino-American national who has won some of the most prestigious awards available to her profession; who has been Time’s Person of the Year. But the authorities in Manila are not proud of her. Instead, in response to reporting on hard-hitting topics like the drug war and corruption, they have gone after her. With threats and hateful language emanating from presidential podiums and across social media. And with a string of prosecutions designed to silence her and send a chill down the spine of any other journalist thinking about reporting unflattering news.

Earlier this year, a trial judge convicted Maria and her colleague of “cyber libel.” For an article she did not write, based on a law that did not exist when the article was written, and as a result of a prosecution initiated 6 years after the limitation period had expired.  The article was about alleged corruption by a supreme court justice who was facing impeachment at that time: a matter of clear public interest. But none of this stopped the trial judge from imposing a draconian 6-year maximum sentence on Maria. And in a bizarre twist the judge even cited Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom while single-handedly undermining respect for fundamental freedoms through her verdict.

Defenders of the judgment have claimed that this is just a private dispute between a journalist and the person whose reputation was harmed by the story. But this is not correct. It was a criminal prosecution brought by the Department of Justice. The state advocated for a conviction and a term of imprisonment. It is now defending the judgment and it is expected to oppose the appeal. So this is the government’s case – their choice, and their legacy. It will be for my colleagues, Maria’s Filipino counsel, to make submissions in the appeal. And a panel of appellate judges can still set things right. But Maria faces a barrage of other charges – all equally spurious – that expose her to many decades behind bars. And in the meantime the message to other journalists is clear: be quiet, or you’ll be next.

According to a professor of journalism at Columbia University: This is how democracy dies in the 21st century: in a musty courtroom, with a judge invoking Mandela. There are no power grabs in the dead of night, no tanks rolling down the streets, no uniformed officers taking over TV stations. Just the steady drip, drip, drip of the erosion of democratic norms, the corruption of institutions, and the cowardly compromises of decision makers in courts.” As Maria has herself put it: it is the death of democracy by a thousand cuts.

I believe that Maria’s struggle is one that defines our times. Data gathered in the last few years shows more journalists being imprisoned around the world than at any time since records began. And this, in turn, threatens every other right. Because if the press is silenced, we don’t know about human rights abuses or corruption. When you switch off the news broadcast by the country’s largest TV station – as the Philippine government did just weeks before Maria’s judgment – you see, as the Washington Post puts it, democracy dying in darkness. 

And what we see happening in other parts of Asia reminds us that it is much more difficult to win a right than to lose it. The people of Hong Kong know that. They’ve seen basic rights vanish overnight, with young people, foreign residents, and business leaders packing up and leaving in response to a new security law that the UN says “infringes on…fundamental rights” and places “undue limitations on freedom of…expression.”

I often read about leaders in the region being described as “strongmen” – a title that sounds like it should imply something positive. But as The Economist recently reported, the Asian countries performing particularly poorly when it comes to the coronavirus have leaders who are “strongmen.” Sri Lankans’ rights are imperiled now that their country is led once again by sibling strongmen. And each day in the US we live through the consequences of choosing a supposedly strong man over a smart woman.

What we must remember is that a clampdown on critics – a silencing of dissent – is not a sign of strength but the ultimate sign of weakness. It is a sign that you know you cannot win in the “marketplace of ideas” so you have to have a monopoly over the ideas that are expressed. 

So that was my first proposition to you: that you cannot have a functioning democracy without a free press.

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Amal Clooney to PH tycoons: Protect press freedom, democracy

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The second is that the press cannot be free if journalists face imprisonment for their work. Of course, there are instances when speech is so dangerous that criminal penalties may be appropriate – such as speech that intentionally incites imminent violence. But over time we have learned that vague laws that allow states to imprison people for criticizing their rulers stifle not only speech but progress. Laws criminalizing blasphemy and sedition are inherently open to abuse. And attacks on reputation can be dealt with through civil libel laws instead of prison time. Quite simply, there are better ways to deal with unwanted reports than locking up the reporter.

This in turn leads to my third proposition: that the Philippines should honor its international commitments. The UN ruled in a case called Adonis v The Philippines that the Philippines should reform its libel laws and ensure that journalists cannot be imprisoned for libel. The case involved a radio broadcaster from Davao City, Alex Adonis, whose life was ruined when he was convicted and sent to prison for reporting on a congressman’s alleged misdeeds. But the Philippines has not reformed its laws to comply with the ruling. And, as you all know, the government has recently u-turned on its support for the International Criminal Court.

But it has not always been this way. The Philippines is one of Asia’s oldest democracies. It was a founding member of the United Nations and has ratified more international human rights treaties than any other ASEAN nation. Filipino delegates helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a Filipina held the pen on the UN Convention on women’s rights. In 2011 the Philippines became one of only two ASEAN states to recognize the ICC. And until recently the country was considered by many to have the freest press in Asia. So I hope that the Philippines will take steps to honor its international commitments. And that future leaders will consider that they have nothing to fear from the ICC. 

Let me end where I began, with my 3 propositions. If you want a functioning democracy, protect the press. To protect the press, don’t imprison journalists for their work. And do honor international treaties that the Philippines has itself played a part in drafting. I believe these propositions are important and far-reaching: because championing free speech in the Philippines also means championing it in Asia, if the Philippines could once again set the example. 

Now, you may say that I am biased – I am a human rights lawyer so I typically represent individuals rather than states, journalists rather than governments who try to lock them up. It is true that I am not neutral on the issue of whether leaders should be able to use the power of the state to silence independent voices; I will do all I can to counter that. And I am not neutral when I hear courageous voices speak up for what is right: I will do what I can to amplify them. But I do not speak for any politician, or party. My bias is towards certain inalienable values that are currently under serious threat.

And at the end of the day, you don’t need to take my word for it. Because each of the propositions I have put to you today has already been set forth by someone you know very well. Someone in high office in this country who represents not the opposition, but the government. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the President’s own spokesman, Harry Roque, has stated that freedom of speech is a “cherished right” essential to truth, democracy, and the ability to go after “despotic regimes.” In an op-ed that he penned in 2012 the spokesman argued that the cyber libel law used to convict Maria is “draconian,” “infringes freedom of expression,” and shows that the government is “insecure and unable to compete in the market place of ideas.” And he concluded in the op-ed that imposing criminal penalties for libel was “disproportionate” and “an outright defiance of the UN” ruling in the Adonis case that the Philippines is “under an obligation to heed.”

These were Mr Roque’s own words before he joined the Duterte administration. And in case you’re wondering where Mr Roque chose to publish the op-ed: it was Rappler.com.

Ladies and gentlemen, those of you gathered here today are leaders in your society. The future of your great country is in your hands. I hope it can be one in which your children will stay safe from harm, and be free to speak their mind. Thank you. – Rappler.com