Solidarity in the time of COVID-19 -- MS Supplement

Free speech in the time of the pandemic

"A democratic society cannot function properly when citizens are prohibited from airing their opinions, views, or when authorities start weaponizing the law to suppress dissent and cow critics."

Maria Beltran was detained after sharing a satirical Facebook post describing a sitio in her city, Cebu City, as the epicenter of coronavirus infections "in the entire solar system.” Reynaldo Orcullo, a salesman from Agusan del Norte, was arrested after he wrote that Go, the President's former aide, tries to appear as a hero by making a scripted request to Duterte. He also called Duterte a crazy man.

In the same week, at least four arrests have been made for their social media posts against Duterte. Seven activists trying to distribute food aid in Bulacan province, north of Manila, were stopped by police and arrested after newspapers and magazines with anti-government content were found in their vehicle. Sometime in April, some 21 Quezon City residents were arrested by cops from the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) after staging a protest to demand help amid the government’s lockdown.

A teacher in Nueva Ecija was arrested for posting that he would pay millions to someone who would kill the President. A tricycle driver in Boracay was arrested for promising to double this reward. These were clearly satirical because these individuals have no capacity to pay such amounts of money.

These individuals were arrested and detained without warrant even as, according to legal experts, there is no basis for warrantless arrest. Many are now facing charges for violation of Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and libel under the Revised Penal Code, to incitement to commit sedition.

It is at once apparent that the arrests and detentions have been made not in furtherance of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic but are politically motivated designed to muzzle critics of the administration.

Civil liberties, which the nation fought long and hard to regain, are once again under attack. Thanks to this public health emergency brought about by Covid-19, authorities have been given a very convenient pretext to clamp down on those who they consider are espousing unsavory views toward them. This is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime.

Criticism cannot be countered by intolerance and suppression; it can only be neutralized by persuasive reasoning, good example and to the government, effective governance. Actions of public officials and the way they comport themselves in public, unlike private citizens, have far-reaching consequences on the life of the country. As such, public officials cannot use the law and resources of the State to arrogate unto themselves the monopoly of truth or impose upon their citizens at all times their version of “truth.” To do so can only open a Pandora’s box of governmental abuse, impunity and degradation of accountability.

Needless to say, a democratic society cannot function properly when citizens are prohibited from airing their opinions, views, or when authorities start weaponizing the law to suppress dissent and cow critics. If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. For it is only when the people have unbridled access to information and the press, and are free to express their sentiments in the marketplace of ideas, that they will be capable of rendering enlightened judgments. In the oft-quoted words of Thomas Jefferson, we cannot both be free and ignorant.

The only derogation allowed for free speech and other great freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution is when there exists a clear and present danger of a serious threat to society that the state has the right to prevent. That requires the threat to be imminent and real – not remote and imagined.

At this juncture, let me quote Justice Malcolm, founder of the University of the Philippines College of Law, in one of our first free speech cases, United States vs Bustos where he did not exempt even judges from criticism:

“The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience. A public officer must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can the intelligence and the dignity of the individual be exalted. Of course, criticism does not authorize defamation. Nevertheless, as the individual is less than the State, so must expected criticism be born for the common good. Rising superior to any official or set of officials, to the Chief of Executive, to the Legislature, to the Judiciary — to any or all the agencies of Government — public opinion should be the constant source of liberty and democracy . . . In the words of Mr. Justice Gayner, who contributed so largely to the law of libel, "The people are not obliged to speak of the conduct of their officials in whispers or with bated breath in a free government, but only in a despotism."

This was decided in 1918. It is still a valid doctrine in 2020.

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Topics: Tony La Vina , freedom of speech , Republic Act 10175 , Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012
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