Can Charlie Hebdo cover the President?

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SASS ROGANDO SASOT

I ONCE believed that offensive speech shouldn’t be allowed to circulate in the marketplace of ideas. I held this view for quite some time, especially when I was still living in the Philippines. When I started living in the Netherlands, my views changed.

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I became more and more tolerant of offensive speech, not because I agree with offending anyone but because I’ve come to learn that the only way to defeat offensive speech is by letting it be confronted rather than silenced. And one cannot confront offensive speech if one is going to censor it.

My major turning point happened during a protest rally I attended at The Hague. The protest aimed at countering the anti-immigrant rally happening elsewhere in the city. When the anti-immigrant protesters started to march towards us, the police formed a protective barrier between us and them.

The police didn’t stop the anti-immigrants from saying the most racist speech you could ever imagine i.e. cuss words, slurs, middle fingers, wishing us to die, telling us to go back where we came from.

Instead of complaining about how harsh the other side was, something else happened to me. I appreciated the role of the State (as represented by the police) in upholding the freedom of speech of everyone. The police force was not there to silence anyone but to protect everyone from physical harm. I turned to one of my colleagues and told her: This is freedom.

I’m reminded of this event after hearing Pia Robles Rañada, Rappler’s representative in the Malacañang Press Corps, make an issue of bloggers’ use of profanity. She questioned whether the administration’s social media accreditation policy allows bloggers to use profanity and “write fake news.” Rañada wanted to “implement quality control over the people [given]access to the President.”

Rañada’s question is, of course, poppycock. Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code criminalizes publishing false news that puts public order in peril or damages the national interest. Since when did an accreditation policy ever excuse anyone from criminal accountability? So, the gall of Rañada to talk about “quality control” when here she is making a fool of herself spewing nonsense?

Yet what’s puzzling is Rañada’s concern about how bloggers express themselves in their articles. The profanity of bloggers bothers her. Those who swear in their write-ups can’t be in the same room as Rañada when she covers the President. But why exactly should bloggers who use swear words to convey disgust at a government policy or at a social institution like mainstream media be excluded from covering the President? Where exactly does Rañada think the government gets the right to police how bloggers or anyone choose to convey their ideas to the public?

If Rañada were present in the protest I attended here at The Hague, she would be someone who would prefer for the police to silence the other party spewing offensive speech.

During the public consultation of the accreditation policy in February 2016, Stella Estremera, the editor in chief of SunStar Davao, rightfully pointed out that the government could require bloggers or anyone who would cover the President to behave in a particular manner only during the event itself.

Unlike Rañada, Estremera understands fully what freedom of speech is and that the government has no business determining the content of one person’s speech—whether they are traditional journalists or bloggers.

Article 19, the international non-government organization advancing the cause of freedom of expression, agrees with that position: “The suggestion that there should be ‘standards of acceptable behavior’ online beyond what is already required by law—akin to an enforceable code of civility or politeness online—is both unwarranted and overbroad.”

That Rappler’s journalist is making an issue of bloggers’ profanity is rather at odds with Rappler’s position on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine which uses provocative and offensive language in its social and political commentaries. And they spare no one.

In an editorial after the killing of Charlie Hebdo’s staff and journalists in 2015, Rappler wrote: “In many ways, journalists are also artists. They create, agitate, provoke, challenge the status quo, stir discomfort and anger, hold up a mirror to reflect society’s values and inanities, and even influence thought and action…A vibrant democracy lives and thrives with a plurality of voices. When the voices begin to sound the same or become tamed, more so muted, the very environment journalists need to do their jobs well becomes threatened.”

If Rappler truly believes in a “plurality of voices,” why is it against bloggers who use profanities in their speech? Why should the voices of these bloggers be “tamed”? Does Rappler want them to “sound the same” as how traditional journalists speak? Isn’t that creating the kind of environment it thinks inimical to the job even of traditional journalists? Lastly, if a blogger is as irreverent, offensive, provocative, and agitating as Charlie Hebdo, would Rappler be against him covering the President?

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