Language is the only homeland. ~ Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz
Today, democracy in my country took an arrow in the chest.
Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of independent news bureau Rappler, and its researcher-writer Rey Santos, fell into the jaws of a cyber-libel conviction this morning with Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 ruling in favor of the complainant, businessman Wildredo Keng.
The case was anything but commonplace. The law that was used, Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which passed into law during the administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, turned the tables against Ressa through the use of the ‘theory of continuous publication’.
In explaining the theory, former National Bureau of Investigation Cybercrime Division Chief Manuel Antonio Eduarte in 2018, said, “Even if it (the article in question) was posted in 2012, it can still be seen at the time they filed a complaint, or at the time the law was passed, so our presumption as far as our investigation is concerned, they still violated the cybercrime law.”
The supposedly libelous article was published sometime May 2012. The Cybercrime Prevention Act passed into law four months later, in Sept. 2012.
According to a CNN Phils. report, “While the story was initially published months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was passed, the prosecution had argued that the article was republished on February 19, 2014. But according to Rappler, there were no substantial modifications made to the story, as the update only involved correction of typographical errors. Te has also noted that the temporary restraining order on the cybercrime law was still in effect when the story was updated, hence, the republication principle should not apply.”
Media and press organizations decried the court’s verdict as an assault on press freedom, seeing that Rappler is being singled out in this regime’s systematic campaign to silence its critics.
While the Palace scrambles to deny any involvement in the decision of the court, even going out of its way to say that it supports a free press, Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, weighed in on the controversy, saying, “This verdict is a sham and should be quashed. Ressa, Santos and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration, including ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines. The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically-motivated, and the sentence is nothing but political […] The international community cannot remain silent in the face of this brazen vendetta against the press.”
Vendetta. That is exactly what we are seeing here.
With Ressa’s conviction, the choices left for journalists to make are easier said than done: either democracy concedes to the whims of the tyrant at the Palace, later to be trampled underfoot by the passing of the draconian Terror Bill, or resists all attempts to silence its voice at the risk of either imprisonment or death.
Either way, the cost is tremendous.
The arch-commissars of democracy — journalists, storytellers and poets, artists — are of particular interest in this battle for hearts and minds. Even prior to the conviction, some have already slid past the battle lines to join the oppressor openly and without remorse. They speak on behalf of the despot using the sort of logic no more acceptable than those employed by Flat Earth theorists.
Those who fell silent made it past the scrutiny of an enraged public by associating themselves with the most mundane, albeit everyday necessities. It’s the kind of sleight of hand which plays on the people’s need for ‘normality’ and ‘positivity’ at a time when the country is fighting a battle on two fronts: the new Coronavirus and authoritarian rule.
Others chose to merely disappear.
I don’t blame them. Under Rodrigo Duterte, the fate of those who’d dare speak out against him is well-nigh assured. The man had had no second thoughts of pushing for the murder of anyone predisposed to stand or speak against him. The past four years where tens of thousands have perished due to his bogus war on drugs were proof of this. If encouraging his soldiers to shoot women rebels in the vagina or rape three women with impunity as they enforce martial law in Mindanao isn’t sufficient evidence of his unequivocal delirium, I don’t know what is.
But there are those who faced, and continue to face, the tyrant’s maelstrom-like neurosis head-on with little regard for their own safety. Running a profession that’s chiefly too complicated, taxing, and dangerous to begin with, journalists, writers, and artists, to say little of those brave students who stood at loggerheads with police during protest marches, took it upon themselves to speak truth to power regardless of the political and military machinery behind this administration.
The conviction opens the door for an even more draconian law — the Anti-Terrorism Bill — to wreak havoc on the country’s populace. Imagine: if this regime can turn RA 10175 retroactively against its critics, how much more a terror bill that seeks to brand anyone, on mere suspicion, as terrorists?
Slowly but surely, we Filipinos are being rendered stateless — pushed beyond the boundaries and the protection of the State and our laws. That the State itself is the one doing this, weaponizing our laws against us in exchange for its friendship with China, tells me that if we don’t fight back now, we may not even have a nation to call our own, let alone rights.
While many decry the conviction as an assault on press freedom, and I join them in decrying it, I feel there is the greater danger of not only losing our rights and freedoms, but that in the losing of our rights and freedoms, the losing of our identity and sovereignty as a people would be next in line. That, I fear, is the bigger picture we must consider here.
Where our very land and our sense of nation are being pulled from under our feet, I join the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in saying that language is the only homeland.
This is the very reason why we must never give up on the word. In speaking it out, in telling it like it is, shouting from the very housetops. We cannot succumb to fear, no matter how truly fearful the situation can be. The word is that other country we speak of when all seems dark and grim.
If free speech means anything, it is not only speaking truth to power, but speaking truth as power — the power to see our words come to life and shape our reality. This is the real reason why tyrants fear the word.
Democracy is not killed by darkness; it is killed by silence. Mark my words, without a free press, you can kiss this republic — or what’s left of it — goodbye.