In the guise of liberty and freedom, we do what we want, with or sans reservation, individually and/or collectively. But there are fundamental values that anchor us in order to live harmoniously and peacefully. Our fundamental values are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights coined as freedoms. Among these freedoms –which are contextually adapted in our Constitution– are freedom of speech, expression, and of the press. These freedoms allow us to express our grievances against the government and to advocate for our causes. Free speech, in particular, is vital in the pursuit of truth. Henceforth, regulating speech requires a heavy burden on the part of the government. These fundamental rights allow us to unmute ourselves to the societal issues in our country, the Philippines.
It is axiomatic that freedom of expression which also includes speech, has gained recognition as a fundamental principle of every democratic government. In the case of Gonzalez v. Chavez, the Supreme Court thus ruled that freedom of expression is given a preferred right that stands on a higher level than substantive economic freedom or other liberties. Ideas that may be expressed under this freedom are confined not only to those that are conventional or acceptable to the majority. To be truly meaningful, freedom of speech and the press should allow and even encourage the articulation of the unorthodox view, though it is hostile to or derided by others; or through such view “induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger (Gonzalez v. Chavez; citing Gonzalez et al. v. COMELEC).
Dissent is protected under free speech, free press, and expression and therefore is necessary for a democratic country. But when these are threatened or violated, can we say that there is still a functioning democratic society?
To back this up, let us trace back and revisit the acts of this administration that constitute an act of muting dissent. These data are reported by the Human Right Watch.
Attack on the administration critic
Senator Leila de Lima, the loud dissenter of this administration since 2017, has been behind bars on politically motivated drug charges. In May 2018, the Philippine Supreme Court, in an unprecedented case, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who is a critic of the drug war and the administration policies, was removed from the Supreme Court by a quo warranto. In September of the same year, Duterte revoked the amnesty given to Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, another Duterte critic, by the previous administration for leading mutinies in 2003 and 2007 when he was a naval officer. In 2019, police filed sedition complaints against Vice President Leni Robredo, and 35 other people, including priests and bishops, political opposition members, and human rights lawyers and activists whom it claimed had participated in a plot to oust Duterte.
Attack on human rights defenders and progressive organizations
In 2017, in furtherance of the drug war, President Duterte ordered the Police instrumentality to shoot human rights defenders if they were obstructing the said program. He then publicly condemned the Commission on Human Rights and threatened to abolish it. In February 2018, the Department of Justice issued a petition that labeled more than 600 people—among them Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and dozens of leftist activists—as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). In 2019, the Duterte administration launched an attack on civil society and individuals who are vocal dissenters of the incumbent administration. Duterte’s national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, filed perjury charges against religious and activist groups for allegedly lying in their petition seeking judicial protection from state security forces. The government has continued its campaign of “red-tagging” activists by accusing them of being members or sympathizers of the communist New People’s Army. In 2020, the incumbent administration continued its threats and attacks on its dissenter, including killings, against left-wing political activists, environmental activists, community leaders, Indigenous peoples’ leaders, journalists, and lawyers. Leftist activists and human rights defenders were key targets of physical and online attacks. Unidentified gunmen shot dead Zara Alvarez, a legal worker for the human rights group Karapatan, in Bacolod City. Alvarez was the 13th Karapatan member killed during the Duterte administration. Since 2015, human rights defenders and activists have been killed. In 2021, the red-tagging of progressive organizations had continued.
Attack on journalists
In 2017, this administration started its attack on journalists. Joaquin Briones, a newspaper columnist, was killed by unidentified gunmen in the Masbate province town of Milagros. Rudy Alicaway and Leo Diaz, radio journalists, in separate incidents in the southern part of Mindanao, were killed by an unidentified gunman killed. Duterte has publicly diminished media outlets and harassed journalists that exposed police abuses in extrajudicial killing cases. In the same year, he threatened to block the renewal of the large broadcasting franchise of the country, the ABS-CBN network. He also publicly threatened the Philippine Daily Inquirer with tax evasion charges and falsely accused the media platform Rappler of being US-owned. In 2018, the attacks on journalists had continued. The Department of Justice indicted Rappler and its editor and founder, Maria Ressa, for tax evasion. 6 journalists were killed by an unidentified gunman during this year. In 2019, the attacks on journalists had been intensified. Maria Ressa, a known critic of this administration and executive editor of Rappler, was arrested on two occasions: tax evasion and libel. Rappler, on the other, received official scrutiny for alleged funding by foreigners. News anchor, Eduardo Dizon of Kidapawan City in Mindanao, was shot dead on July 10, 2019. Brandon Lee, a new personality, suffered serious injuries from an attack by a gunman in August in the northern Philippines. Other members of the press were subjected to red-baiting and threats, notably Cong Corrales, associate editor of the Mindanao Gold Star Daily, and Froilan Gallardo, a senior correspondent for MindaNews. The country’s intelligence service, in September, “red-tagged” journalist Sonia Soto, manager of a radio station in Pampanga province, by accusing her of being having links to communist groups. In 2020, a court convicted journalist Maria Ressa of cyber libel in June 2020, while the government shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, the following month. The Anti-Terrorism Law was signed by the President, which arguably violates human rights, including freedom of speech, expression, and press. The killing of journalists also continued with the murder of radio broadcaster and online commentator Jobert Bercasio on September 14. Bercasio was the 17th journalist killed during Duterte’s term. This year also heightened the red-tagging of the Duterte administration on social media. In 2021, another journalist in the person of Jose Malabana was killed in the Philippines, the 22nd during the presidency of Duterte. He was watching in his home in Calbayog when gunmen barged in and shot him in the head. He was a longtime journalist who reported for Bandera, The Manila Times, and The Manila standard.
It is neither overreaching nor a fishing expedition but rather apparent that the Duterte Administration’s attack on human rights is jarring. By violating these fundamental rights, i.e., free speech and expression, the Duterte Administration effectively is muting dissent. Dissent, it is said, enhances transparency. Hence, without dissent, we can conclude that this administration lacks transparency. Dissent is the most important action in a functioning society. Without the threat of an uprising, an increasingly powerful and despotic government will slowly but swiftly erode the freedoms we hold dear. We must value our right to speak up, move where we please, and have security in our homes and in our persons. If we don’t, tyranny will rain down on us swiftly and harshly, leaving us with bodies but no souls (Benjamin Morris, 2014).
Abdullah M. Edris, a frustrated creative-persuasive writer, is a legal researcher and a fourth-year law student. In college, he graduated cum laude in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Technology Management at MSU-IIT. He was a college journalism awardee. This nonbinary and gender nonconforming lad loves language, literature, and culture. He is one of the writers at The Nexus.