Freedom for greater freedom
International law principles have now recognized that any obstacle, statutory or in any other form, to the right to freedom of speech must be considered as an exception rather than a standard. This follows the concept that the human being is primordial rather than the interest of the state.
Moving on with our attempt to understand the proposed federal Constitution, a glimpse of one very cherished provision of the Bill of Rights deserves a prominent place in the national discourse — The Freedom to speak, express and assemble.
While the 1987 Constitution mandates that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances,” the Consultative Committee’s version goes further and stipulates that the local government units shall, among other things, establish appropriate freedom parks for the peaceful assembly of the people.
We all know that a freedom park is an accessible public space where sociopolitical rallies and meetings may be done where no prior permit or license is needed from the government. The justification for this is the people’s inherent right to express their sentiments against the authorities. These activities can be validly regulated in the name of public interest and order. The right to gather in a freedom park finds basis in BP 880 or the Public Assembly Act. Nothing new here but re-emphasizing this in the basic law of the land sends a strong signal to local government units to take this seriously and designate an area where citizens can air their grievances without going through the bureaucracy of getting a mayor’s permit or being under the threat of harassment or physical harm by law enforcers.
However, we should go beyond just freedom parks. It goes without saying that this section of the Bill of Rights must be tackled, in connection with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights where freedom of expression is considered not only a fundamental freedom in itself but its respect is also essential for the enjoyment of other rights, including freedom of ideas, right to privacy and the right to participate in political discourse or public affairs. It provides inertia for achieving accountability and transparency which are central to human rights. Essential to this is the Constitution as an enabler for those who want to know, seek, obtain, receive and hold information relating to these basic freedoms.
There is no denying that those who use the power of the pen and grassroots organizing in the name of legitimate dissent are the ones who have been denied the exercise of these rights. Many activists and journalists have either been publicly persecuted, arrested or even killed under separate laws like the Revised Penal Code or special legislation which needs to be revisited, particularly in the areas of libelous expression and national security violations. I remember the raids and closure of major dailies during martial law or even the seemingly innocuous persecution of publications which are critical of government abuses. Many unsung heroes have fallen as martyrs in their pursuit of greater freedom through their curtailed right of expression — Ninoy Aquino, Voltaire Garcia, Col. Jose Reyes, Lean Alejandro, and many more from different political spectrum.
Yes, the state can impose limitations on freedom of expression in the name of national security or peace and order, but these should ideally apply only to those actions which are actually intended to incite or really result to violence. There must be a showing of a real, not perceived, connection between the expression of a view or belief and the case of violence. In fact, international law principles have now recognized that any obstacle, statutory or in any other form, to the right to freedom of speech must be considered as an exception rather than a standard. This follows the concept that the human being is primordial rather than the interest of the state.
The promotion of free and robust exchange of ideas, beliefs or even biases in the social, political, religious or philosophical spheres is indispensable to a truly democratic nation. Unnecessary or unreasonable restraints or any prohibition, even in subtle form, against the aforementioned rights, are dangerous steps towards the establishment of authoritarian regimes. We certainly do not want to look back to that darkest part of our history as a nation.
“You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” — James Madison on the Constitution of the United States of America.
ARIEL F. NEPOMUCENO is a management consultant on strategy and investment.