Renee Julienne Karunungan recently took responding to online harassment to a new level. She filed a case against her online bashers at the height of the bitter campaign period for the just-concluded elections.
It’s a development that bears watching even as we “move on” from the acrimonious exchanges that became the norm in the past few weeks.
The twenty-something graduate of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, climate director of the non-government organization Dakila and environment advocate wrote in her blog, just after the March presidential debates, that Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte would be a lazy choice for the voters.
At that time, Duterte anchored his campaign on eradicating criminality and corruption in just a few months by executing the criminals. He also said, pertaining to climate change negotiations, that the United Nations was a hypocrite and that we cannot do without coal-fired power plants. We are, after all, not historical carbon emitters.
As soon as Karunungan posted the entry in her blog, it became viral. “They want to protect their chosen candidate, which I understand. But sometimes to a fault,” she said.
And what excesses did the protective supporters commit. Over the next few weeks, Karunungan received the vilest of comments from people she did not know—people who threatened to rape her and massacre her family. Her “filtered” Facebook messages—those coming from users who are not in her friends list —numbered in the hundreds.
In those nasty messages, references were made to her body. She was cursed at, and was told she resisted the change that the candidate wanted to offer the country. She was accused of being an attention whore.
These were certainly not along the lines of banter, or even jokes at her expense the way people would make fun of, say, an actress-turned-senatorial candidate’s cluelessness. This was different because Renee was told by different people that she would die.
In fact, one of the most threatening was a photo of a gun, which said: “Mag-ingat ka iha. May kalalagyan ka [Be careful. There is a place for you],” and yet another: “Malapit ka na namin matunton, iha [We are coming close to tracking you down].”
And so on May 2, the petite, short-haired, bespectacled Karunungan went to the Commission on Elections and the Department of Justice to charge 20 supporters of Mayor Duterte, stressing that cyberbullying is a “violation of basic rights and a threat to democracy.” The acts, she claimed, were in violation of the Revised Penal Code, the Cybercrime Law and the Omnibus Election Code.
Seeking legal relief was not her impulse. “At first, I did not know what to do and just laughed it off,” she said. “But the messages kept coming.” And then her friends, fellow development workers, all advised her to file first a police blotter, and then an actual case.
Since then, Karunungan has not backed down. She never thought of being silent. “They want people to be silent and I will not give them that satisfaction, not without a fight.”
She has been, however, forced to vary her routines as advised by friends from human rights organizations.
Karunungan’s is just one of the numerous cases of vicious hatred that permeated this campaign. Over social media, especially, the negativity was so unbelievable that you could not believe ordinary human beings could make cruel statements or illogical arguments.
Now the elections are practically over and the country will be preoccupied with transitioning from one administration to the next. Many have sounded the call to “move on.” But must we only go from one chapter to the next without a takeaway from the previous episode?
In Karunungan’s case, “moving on” may be mistaken for conveniently forgetting all the vexation and fear created by the hate mail. Now that the honeymoon for the new administration is about to begin, she may be accused of being fixated on what had happened to her in the past and refusing to continue with the next phase.
This is not something she is prepared to do. What she wants is to drive home a point.
“Maybe we can have better conversations without threatening someone. Maybe we can respect human rights again…maybe we can be better people. That’s the message I want to put across.”
People cannot have the same opinion all the time. We disagree even with members of our immediate family, our closest friends. How much more with strangers?
A unifying leader will call on his constituents, whether they voted for him or not, to respect each other’s views and engage each other constructively. They may debate and argue, sure, but first there is the acknowledgment that each person has inherent rights to develop their own opinion, to express these positions and to be secure in their person without the threat coming from those who think differently.
Finally, he will make it clear that it is just plain wrong to punish anybody in any form just for uttering what she thinks or feels.
Mr. Duterte, if he is to be the leader we expect him to be in the next six years, should elevate the level discourse, not doom it to the gutter.