Free expression under siege

PRESUMABLY SPEAKING for President Benigno Aquino III, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma described martial rule — which Ferdinand Marcos imposed throughout the country 43 years ago through Presidential Proclamation 1081 — as “one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.”

In a statement read over government radio, Coloma reminded the country how thousands of men and women “defied harassment, cruel punishment and fear as they fought for human rights at a time when the dictatorship (had) demolished the house of democracy in our land.” Coloma also declared that “we should be one in saying ‘never again’ and we should not allow that dark part of our history to repeat itself.” Coloma did not mention extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances. But those did happen as well — and what’s more, are still happening.

“From their blood, sweat and tears, our people rebuilt their will power and strength to mount wave upon wave of protests that culminated in the triumph of the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986,” Coloma continued. “The people’s struggle against martial rule served as the foundation for rebuilding democracy in the Philippines“ and “served as a beacon of hope and inspiration for other freedom-loving people, who overcame dictatorship and rebuilt democracy in their land.” However, Coloma urged citizens to “impart to the youth the lessons learned from martial rule and the struggle to restore democracy as our legacy to future generations.”

Martial rule was the blackest period in Philippine post — war history, and not only when it was in force but perhaps as crucial, even after its supposed demise for its legacy of State-sponsored abuse and violence. Free expression and press freedom — the very right to communicate — have had to be defended by both ordinary citizens as well as journalists from continuing attempts to undermine them and to harass, threaten and even to kill those who dare exercise them, despite claims from such personages as Coloma that the country has “rebuilt democracy.”

The democracy that was arguably reestablished in the aftermath of the martial law period was in the first place limited and exclusionary. Marcos declared martial law precisely to halt the democratization of Philippine society and political power that the vast movement for change that was sweeping the entire country in the late 1960s and early 1970s was demanding. The men and women who fought the Marcos dictatorship fought not only for human rights, but equally for the making of a just society. Primarily responsible for the collapse of the Marcos regime through both armed and unarmed means, they had hoped and expected that rather than merely the restoration of elite democracy, the end of the martial law period would usher in an era of justice, freedom and progress through the democratization of political power.

The Nobel Laureate Albert Camus describes the rebel as an individual who says no, but who, in his rejection of an unacceptable state of things, implies the need for an alternative and for achieving an ideal state. The resistance to martial law was both a rejection as well as a demand for an alternative. That this did not happen — that instead of heralding authentic change the collapse of the Marcos regime led only to a restoration of the same limited democracy dominated by a handful of families — was due to the hijacking of what could have been a real revolution by some of the very same forces responsible for martial rule (think the Marcoses, think Juan Ponce Enrile), and by the consequent failure of the administrations that succeeded that of Marcos to realize the demand for reforms, of which among the most crucial was the re-education of the police and military establishments.

Coloma’s call to impart to the youth the lessons learned from the martial law experience should equally be addressed to these institutions which played such a large part in establishing and assuring the survival and dominance of the Marcos dictatorship for fourteen years. Fundamentally unreformed and committed to the preservation of what passes for democracy in this country, in the name of counter-insurgency these institutions have been at the forefront of the continuing assault on free expression and press freedom as well as of the fundamental human right to life and liberty.

The worthies in these damaged and damaging institutions include journalists in Orders of Battle to encourage their “neutralization.” They have named media organizations among the “enemies of the State.” They disperse with truncheons and water cannon demonstrations and rallies led by groups that do not have the same command over bloc votes as certain religious sects. They occupy hinterland schools and even kill teachers and community leaders for daring to educate children the State is unable to provide teachers and facilities for. With the benefit of their “advice,” their patrons in Congress have successfully prevented the passage of a Freedom of Information law, while approving posthaste the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Lately they’ve taken to labeling as “leftists” and “communists” journalists who dare tell the truth about the virtual martial law conditions and the human rights violations in communities identified for “development” by the military because they’re said to be “rebel-infested.” As in the Marcos period, despite calls to dismantle them from human rights groups, counter-insurgency continues as the principal justification for training, arming and funding the paramilitaries that have been implicated in such atrocities as the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.

To these atrocities including the killing of 149 journalists and media workers since 1986, every administration has turned a deaf ear and a blind eye, with the current administration even minimizing the number of journalists killed and the seriousness of the problem. Instead they declare every September to “never again” allow the return of martial rule — while ignoring the assault on free expression, press freedom and freedom of assembly, as well as the extra-judicial killings for which its own forces are in far too many cases responsible.

Free expression among other freedoms is virtually under siege, but only pretty phrases emanate from government, even as it proclaims its adherence to basic freedoms and human rights.
The country may not be officially under martial rule. But for many communities that are experiencing the same repression that prevailed during the Marcos dictatorship — and for those journalists whose lives have been imperiled by the unrepentant masters of repression for reporting the truth — it might as well be.