This past week saw two very serious threats to freedom of expression.
The first was the worst terrorist attack in Paris, France in 50 years that left 10 journalists dead. All ten were then attending an editorial meeting of the publication Charlie Hebdo, a tabloid popular renown for its satire. Amongst the subject of its satirical commentary was the Islamic faith.
Some temper their condemnation of the attack in Paris on the basis that after all, the murdered journalists should not have worked for a publication that blasphemed the Islamic faith. This is gross error. Freedom of expression precisely exists to protect unpopular speech. Expression that extolls needs no protection. It is precisely thoughts that might offend some that deserve protection because these kinds of comments still form part of the free marketplace of ideas from which the people discern the truth and form their opinions.
The second was the decision of the Court of Appeals dismissing the appeal of Carlos Celdran from a conviction for the felony of offending religious feelings. Celdran’s conviction was for displaying the placard “DAMASO” in Manila Cathedral during a mass. He allegedly also said that the church should stay out of politics at the height of the debate on the RH law.
Actually, Celdran’s conviction, save for the fact that he is alive, is equally infirmed as the Paris attack. The only difference is that the infringement on unpopular speech has been in Celdran’s case, legitimized by the Courts. But make no mistake about it: in failing to declare that the crime of offending religious feelings is contrary to freedom of expression, the Court has sustained the validity of an archaic law that makes it a crime to criticize the dominant faith in the Philippines. This is no different from the intent of those who murdered 10 in Paris: to suppress information which is deemed offensive.
The marked difference is how the French and we, Filipinos, deal with the threats to freedom of expression. True, there is the fact that the death of 10 journalists should never be countenanced and should be condemned as a brutal affront on a cherished right. This was why millions expressed their condemnation in a giant rally in Paris and on the net worldwide. But here in the Philippines, even when 32 journalists were killed in Maguindanao in the single deadliest attack against journalists worldwide, there was some condemnation, but there was no rally of the size and scope that we saw on CNN a couple of days ago. This is also probably why Celdran’s conviction was barely noticed especially since the entire nation is stricken with pope fever. Why bother, after all, with one who blasphemed the majority faith at a time when the holy Pope is about to visit the country?
How I wish the Filipinos could be more like the French in this regard. True, it was France that gave us modern democracy through the mottos of liberty, freedom and equality. But we Filipinos were also the first to utter the same motto when we declared ourselves the first Republic in Asia.
In other words, we should be more conscious of the role that freedom of expression plays in the promotion of freedom, liberty and equality . Without freedom of expression, there can be no exchange of ideas. Without exchange of ideas, there can be no truth. Without the truth, there can be no opinion. Without individual opinion, there could be no pubic opinion. Without public opinion, there cannot be accountability. Without accountability, there will be no democracy.
Yes, the papal visit is a reason to celebrate. But just as this Pope stands for justice and democracy, the Filipino people should emulate him and be more expressive in condemning threats to democracy and freedom.
Je Suis Charlie!
Welcome to the Philippines, Holy Father!