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HomeAnonymousFreedom of expression is the people’s right to fight back

Freedom of expression is the people’s right to fight back

Journalists and advocates reiterate call for the junking of the Anti-Terror Act in a protest in July 2023. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)

Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP)

In October of 2018, artists and media workers voiced out the call to Stop the Attacks in protest against the rising EJKs, raids, and arrests under the Duterte administration.

The attacks did not stop: in fact they grew worse during the second half of his term, the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2022 national elections. And for the past five years, we used the hashtags and slogans #ArtistsFightBack and #MediaFightBack to speak out and act against this continuous state of impunity under the present administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

This is why we are here today to talk about press freedom and free expression. These are Constitutional freedoms that defend the people’s right to redress in a country where disinformation, injustice, poverty, and inequality are sadly normalized. Upholding freedom of expression is upholding the Filipino people’s right to fight back.

The vitality of this hits harder if said in Filipino: kalayaan! We fought for this word across our history as a country. It encompasses both our struggle to be free from after four centuries of colonialism and a decade of Martial Law. It is the lifeblood of our profession and calling as artists and truth-tellers: the freedom to know and question, to listen and participate, to express and exercise, to critique and create.

If we go back in history, freedom of the press and expression is vital to the shaping of our identity as Filipinos and as a country. The Katipuneros cherished Kalayaan to the extent of naming their newsletter after the idea/l. To what end? Emilio Jacinto exhorts all in the Kartilya: ipagtanggol mo ang inaapi, at kabakahin ang umaapi.

The Malolos Constitution of 1899 and all the “laws of the land” after in the 1902, 1916, 1935, 1943, and 1973 recognized the right to expression, association, and redress even as other policies ironically enabled and enacted colonial and authoritarian rule. Today, freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 3, Section 4, of the 1987 Constitution. An artist, the late filmmaker, National Artist for Cinema, and CAP founding chairperson Lino Brocka, fought to have those words and rights included even as he opposed provisions that further opened up our economy, policies, and environment to continuing foreign intervention, according to accounts.

We must therefore never forget that contradiction in fighting back for freedom of expression today. Freedom of expression is not a privilege of those in power, but a weapon of the oppressed to safeguard against the abuse of power—whether economic, political, and social.

On the surface, it seems that we are enjoying a lot of freedom, with access to social media and platforms like Facebook, Tiktok, IG and more. Note that is what many administrations before said to justify more censorship and threats. There is nothing farther than the truth.

International watchdogs and rights monitoring groups can at best describe the Philippines as only “partly free” to “highly restricted”. The Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide, for instance, ranks the Philippines as 65/100 (Partly Free) in its Freedom in the World 2022 and Freedom on the Net 2021 reports. According to the Global Expression Report of 2022, which offers an annual look at the rights to freedom of expression and information across 161 countries, the Philippines jumped from being Restricted (2016) to Highly Restricted (2021), a decline of 14 percent.

What are among the threats to freedom of expression in the Philippines?

Our markers of freedom of expression are many: books and libraries, monuments and murals, public spaces and the internet platforms, the warm bodies who speak out and populate our communities, to name a few. If we survey and compare the past five years across Pres. Duterte to Pres. Marcos, Jr., it is deeply disturbing that all such markers have experienced different threats, such as the following:

Attacks on makers of art and literature, and artworks with progressive content in particular. My colleague and CAP board member Abdulmari “Toym” de Leon Imao, Jr. said: “When the truth is under siege, and the press is pinned down by the state, the arts become our second line of defense.”

Every year, we note there is at least a major case of state censorship or police repression in the arts in the Philippines, which symbolically or openly is an act of repression.

In 2018, for example, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) removed the statue remembering comfort women, allegedly to give way for the improvement of Roxas Boulevard. In 2019, the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) confiscated a mural on press freedom, on the occasion of the Maguindanao killings verdict proclamation, by the NUJP and CAP. They have not returned it ever since. Around this time, the City of Manila declared as persona non grata the artist group Panday Sining for its street art and arrested three of its members during a protest rally.

From 2020 to 2021, the Covid-19 nationwide quarantine did not prevent the Kalinga Philippine National Police (PNP) from destroying and demolishing a community-initiated artwork, the Anti-Chico River Dam monument, in Bugnay, Tinglayan, Kalinga province, which bears the portraits of Cordillera heroes Macliing Dulag, Pedro Dungoc Sr., and Lumbaya Gayuda. On the eve of the national elections in May 2022, the former President of the Cultural Center of the Philippines ordered the dismantling of the public art installation “Kaingin: An Earth Month Art Installation” by Jinggoy Buensuceso, after the artist modified elements such as red to pink ribbons to comment on the temper of the times. During the lockdown to more recent months leading to today, it is disturbing to note that traditional practices of protest art, such are effigies for street rallies, are also continually targetted and attacked.

2. Attacks on cultural, educational, and media institutions.

Before the pandemic in 2018, military officials such as Antonio Parlade were already “red-tagging” schools, colleges, and universities such as UP, DLSU, UST, and 15 other institutions in Metro Manila, alleging such institutions to be part of a sinister plot for communist recruitment and ouster of the President. There was the vicious red-tagging of films and filmmakers since 2018-19, especially works which addressed the reality and memory militarization and/or Martial Law. These instances of red-tagging intensified with the institutionalization of the NTF-ELCAC and its “whole of nation” approach that same year coupled with pro-government outlets such as the SMNI.

Such vicious attacks continued during the pandemic and after the 2022 national elections. In 2021, for instance, the NTF-ELCAC and NICA pressured several state universities in Kalinga, Isabel, and Aklan to ban and turn over allegedly subversive books and literature. In March 2022, the Popular Bookstore in Quezon City, was vandalized with the words “NPA terorista”. In August 2022, the SMNI and NTF-ELCAC maliciously red-tagged 17 novels, their authors, and even officials from the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF) as “subversive”. The attacks covered books to libraries and bookstores, films to schools.

3. Attacks against people and communities in the arts and culture sector.

Who can forget the Parlade Jr.’s red-tagging of celebrities Liza Soberano, Angel Locsin, and Catriona Gray in October 2020, after they voiced out support for women’s rights against gender-based violence? These attacks targetted institutions to individuals—many of us here have personally experienced being trolled and threatened online, for example.

The death threats and killings of those red-tagged continue. We recall some names:

Choreographer and activist Marlon Maldos of the community-based theater group Bansiwag Bohol on March 17, 2020 was the first EJK during the Enhanced Community Quarantine and lockdown.
Young editorial cartoonist and anti-disinformation advocate Benharl Khalil was gunned down in Lebak town in Sultan Kudarat in November 2022.

Awarded poet, peasant advocate, and National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Ericson Acosta and a companion were killed while under arrest and custody by military foces in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental on November 30, 2022.

The many instances of cyber-libel and libel, surveillance, and harassment continues in 2023. Starting the year on January 2, playwright and director Bonifacio Ilagan, a Martial Law survivor, received a death threat from an anonymous caller; the first time such a brazen threat against his life was implied and conveyed.

A few days later on January 10, Cebu-based activists Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dahoya, returning from a vacation to Mindanao, were abducted in broad daylight by suspected state agents at the Cebu City pier. They were resurfaced on January 16, after citizen footage of the abduction was made public. Dahoya is a visual artist and a lecturer at UP Cebu.

The rising number of political detainees across different Presidential administrations after Martial Law is deeply disturbing. Among the hundreds of political detainees are artists and cultural workers such as JP and Grace Versoza (Leyte), Alvin Fortaliza (Bohol), Cheryl Catalogo (Negros), Rolly Hernando (Negros), Kenneth Serrondo (Negros), Carlo Apurado (Negros), Amanda Echanis (Cagayan Valley), Lorie Sigua (Butuan), Aldeem Yanez, Adora de Vera, and Ben Quiloy. While others like Daisy Macapanpan have been freed, many continue to endure unjust imprisonment.

The track record of the past Presidential administrations on free speech and free expression can be summed up in one work: palpak (failure).

The whole range of this includes the Duterte administration’s enabling and abuse of their position of power to fan speech and expression that perpetuates injustice, misogyny, disinformation to Marcos Jr.’s failure to to speak up—the theme of the banner we are painting today. In his June inauguration speech, Marcos was silent on the recent attacks on press freedom. In April, he did give a speech at the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day but this unfortunately seemed more concerned with improving reputation and rankings rather than addressing the reality of impunity itself.

Therefore our call to action: listen, speak up and speak now, fight back for freedom of expression!

We call on fellow Filipinos to speak up for press freedom and freedom of expression.

We call on fellow artists and cultural workers. Continue to create collectively an art and culture that tells the truth about the Filipino people’s realities and struggles, that is scientific and progressive in outlook, and that touches the lives of as many people as possible within and beyond the Philippines. Art’s purpose is not to entertain; it is to make us confront contradictions and respond to our milieu.

We call on Irene Khan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression since 2020, to respond to the degree of attacks against free expression in the Philippines.

Maraming salamat po!

*Given during the Forum on the State of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press in the Philippines, July 17, 2023, Student Union Building, Alcantara Hall, UP Diliman. CAP is an organization of artists and cultural workers founded in 1983 amid the censorship under the regime of Marcos Sr. As an artist collective, CAP continues to organize artists to stand for freedom and justice today.

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