Free­dom for greater free­dom

Business World - - Opinion - ARIEL F. NEPOMUCENO

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.

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