Today, the resistance to the Cybercrime Prevention Act gains ground with the “Petition for Certiorari, Prohibition, and Injunction…” filed by media groups with the Supreme Court. The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) is a signatory, asking the High Court “to annul and/or restrain the implementation” of the said law for being unconstitutional. This is one of nine other petitions that seek various forms of relief from the different offensive provisions of the law.
Much has been said about what and why we should be afraid of this law, and I will not add my less expert opinion on these matters; except to point out that the law should not be seen only as encroaching on the Internet freedom of journalists and news organizations. The Internet is much more than just news sharing. It is the most evolved form of communication with platforms to engage everyone of age, all ordinary citizens, the young people on social media, the man and woman on the street who connect to global sources for views and comments as well as to share their ideas and information.
Reporting on this law, a German radio station asked: “Where is this coming from?” —understanding that the Philippines had been recognized for its liberal policy on Internet use.
I think it helps to try to understand the profound contradictions embedded in our culture, the clash of tendencies especially when it comes to the profound implications of free speech and expression.
In Yangon last week to participate in a regional discussion of press issues in a democratic transition, I was struck once again about how unique our Constitution is among countries in Southeast Asia in its provision for freedom of expression, speech, and press. When I pointed out how we did not have a Press Law because having one would be in itself an abridgment of freedom of expression already granted in our Constitution, my colleague from Indonesia stopped short, seemingly in awe, “You have the First Amendment?”
Among countries in the region ranked as free societies and claiming democratic credentials, we are probably alone in our long-standing belief, as expressed in our basic law, that indeed these values are good not for a few but for all citizens, that these should be truly alive in the way we live. Its promotion and protection should therefore be everyone’s concern.
Unfortunately, experience has belied this again and again. I do not think too many Filipinos truly value this freedom. And some of them are elected to high office to represent the voiceless.
When journalists, broadcasters are slain, it is sidelined as a sectoral matter. When an artist’s installation is found offensive, the exhibit must be closed down. Freedom of Information has not become law. And our legislators have allowed this Act to come to pass.
We betray this faith in other ways. Culturally, institutions—including family and church—assert values of respect and reverence; but have greater interest in manipulating through fear. So many are afraid of the consequences of our freedom and are in terror of its abuse and misuse. And they mistakenly think that controls imposed by authority and law will put things to right.
This conflict is reflected in both practice and principle, and with contentious outcomes in the public forum. Our discourse expresses so much distrust of one another and an utter lack of faith in the power of the good speech to overcome bad speech. I am not saying this process is easy, but we need to build skills in dialogue and debate that does not debase the opponent, otherwise all discourse becomes empty of meaning. Meaning requires rigor of both mind and spirit. Meaning sustains the words that evolves consensus from the clash of convictions.
This internal conflict gave life to the initial tacit acceptance of Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law. Perhaps, government control will save us from our worse selves. Thrown out of power by a peaceful uprising against the dictatorship and authoritarianism in 1986, the same notion continues to contaminate the public sphere. The tendency rises from some primitive recesses of our national psyche that control and limitations are the best instruments for protecting the good. It is dismissive of the good that comes from freedom.
I am not a “freedom terrorist”—a term to describe those advocating universal standards without understanding the national or local contexts of religion and culture. The fullness of freedom and the limits of freedom must rise from a deep understanding of a shared national vision, and must be worked out through a history of dialogue and exchange. In a democracy, such dialogue must involve everyone in a continuing conversation. Until we all get it and hopefully learn to live by it.
I believe that we should defend this freedom. But we must also commit to learning the terms of engaged discourse, argumentation, and debate. This includes learning ethical norms and the acquiring the virtue of listening, openness, and tolerance.
In a globalized community, this exchange is enriched and empowered by the speed and immediacy of technology.
Indeed, the technological advances in communication technology seem to have outdistanced the substance of much political conversation, not just here but even in other democracies. But the remedy does not lie in control and surveillance. For all the explosion of media in the period following the fall of Marcos, our politicians have not made Congress the forum of thoughtful discussion of policies deeply affecting individuals and the public sphere. And this is one reason, why the tendency to control has reared its ugly head in law.
Our elected representatives in Congress allowed the passage of this law without public hearings. A closed bicameral committee meeting allowed the inclusion of its most odious provisions, without even other lawmakers knowing. (Records were made public belatedly.)
Over two decades after the fall of authoritarian rule and its extended experimentation with controlled communication, our lawmakers seem to have failed completely to appreciate the value of freedom of expression and communication. With the pretext of preventing crime in cyberspace, they have once again reverted to the instruments of Martial Law.