Stop silencing the critics

"When did it become a crime to criticize the government and our leaders?"


When did our rights to free speech begin to erode?

It might be argued that this became a serious problem in 2012, with the passage of the draconian Cybercrime Prevention Act, signed into law by then President Benigno Aquino III. Originally drafted to prevent online crimes such as child pornography, identity theft and cybersex, the law has been increasingly used as a weapon to silence critics of the government.

That can be traced to how the law also expanded the definition of libel to include online content—including social media posts—and increased the jail time and other penalties for the “crime.”

In the same year the Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed, the UN Committee on Human Rights said that treating libel as a crime as provided under the Philippine penal code violates the obligation of the country to respect freedom of expression as contained in its commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The committee issued its pronouncement in response to a complaint on behalf of a Davao-based broadcaster, Alex Adonis, who was jailed for more than two years after his conviction in 2007 on libel charges filed by a congressman.

The lawyer representing the broadcaster at the time described the UN pronouncement as “a very big win for the freedom of expression.”

“We expect the Philippine government… to comply with the committee’s view and proceed to decriminalize libel and to provide reparations to Adonis for time he spent in prison. No one should be imprisoned for expressing his or her views, full stop.”

Without commenting on the specifics of the case, we fully agree with the view that nobody should be jailed for speaking his or her mind, especially if it is to criticize perceived wrongdoing in the government. That is, after all, how a democracy should operate, and how abuses by those in power can be checked.

But now we have the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), an arm of the Department of Justice, going after critics on social media with hammer and tongs—and, in at least one case, carry out an arrest without the necessary warrant. In another case, the NBI issued a subpoena to the author of a post questioning the government spending on efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. In April, the Department of Labor and Employment asked Taiwan to deport a Filipino working there because she had posted videos criticizing President Duterte for the lockdown and the use of force to enforce quarantine measures.

In a functioning democracy, such criticism is one way to improve the system of government and to hold officials accountable for their actions.

So when did it become a crime to criticize the government and our leaders? Why is it all right for a government agency to launch a campaign to intimidate and arrest those who do so online? Perhaps we can address these questions to the lawyer who took Adonis’ case to the UN—and who today is the official spokesman for an administration that is increasingly seen as being hostile to those who would dare to criticize it.

Topics: Editorial , Cybercrime Prevention Act , UN Committee on Human Rights , libel , freedom of expression , International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
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