One rarely thinks about one’s freedoms until one feels it is being impinged upon, where one is being told of the price you pay for insisting on your right to free speech and independent thought.
In the course of this government’s reign in Malacañang, and despite its grand proclamations about how this is a democracy – for look at how they let critics critique and rallies happen! –I have thought more and more about the mortality of the freedoms we hold dear.
I realize that sometimes we so believe that oppression and repression can only wear the same clothes, invoke the same proclamations, that we fail to see how our freedoms are sacrificed as a matter of course, every day, in the more insidious ways that we do not talk about, sometimes, can’t even imagine.
The fear of opinion
It takes so little to get government antsy about what it imagines to be representative of “public opinion” and this is where they get all defensive and petty against criticism. Opinion pieces are deemed unproductive, the more critical ones that ask questions of government, dismissed as destructive.
The latter assertion I have heard often, and not just about my writing. It is said of most opinion that comes from left field, i.e., not what the bandwagon thinks, which opinions, four years into PNoy’s brand of governance, are obviously inextricably bound with this government’s.
And no, I’m not talking about trolls or hired hacks on comments threads getting away with defamation, because they’re speaking anonymously. Those you expect – and ignore – in democratic Philippines; anonymity is unfair when one operates on keeping a byline.
I’m talking the President’s men and women in our social media midst, the ones who spew opinions on the pretense of criticality, but who actually only support government ideology and rhetoric. I tend to think those are the scariest opinions of all, because cloaked in credibility and relevance, even as speaking only to maintain the status quo.
If there’s anything one learns writing opinion and commentary under this PNoy government, it’s that democracy is nothing more but a term they use to point out their liberalism. Asked about the deaths of journalists and activists, we have heard it said too often: government has no policy against critics. In fact look at how these critics are allowed to think and say what they must!
But this is faulty liberalism that does nothing but hold up freedom of speech as a false measure of democracy. It lives off the idea that all opinions are valid, and all perspectives can be correct.
That of course is wrong. At no other time has it become more clear to me that democracy is about being purposeful in using that freedom to speak, because there is right and wrong, there is unfairness and injustice. There are silences.
There is a picture being drawn of nation that is disagreeable, there are words being used to justify injustice and disrespect for basic rights. If we are to look at our government and national institutions, their limitations spell the difference between the betterment of nation, and the utter destruction of it. In a country like the Philippines, the latter is also the status quo.
What I’ve realized writing opinion and commentary the past five years or so is this: where Erap and GMA could deal with criticism by answering questions – or ignoring these completely – PNoy’s government has a way of making you feel like you’re the most incorrigible, unwelcome, destabilizer on this side of the earth.
No questions are welcome, every contrary opinion is deemed destructive.
In a country where people take criticism of their work personally, from the President himself to every politician beneath him, the self-proclaimed savior of Pinoy media to every other presidential appointee, you will also be threatened with libel.
But the scariest thing for a writer in this country is not the law that suppresses freedom of speech, not the laws that will put you in jail for your opinion. What one must fear, in fact, is how democracy is used to invoke fear and threaten writers, how it is used to keep the powerful in their place, and the critical in the box for hopeless cases.
Because this is a country where you will pay for articulating unpopular and tangential opinions. You will be called names, you will be bullied for the entire world to see. You do not know kuyog– a far larger more offensive version of being ganged-up on – until you see it happening on social media. Soon enough what you’ve written has been lost in a discussion that has become about your person.
Fact: the real enemies of writing in this country are our sacred cows. These are people who are never wrong, and are so rarely criticized, that they will take offense when you dare question what they say or do. These are people in government, but also these are people in the universities we learned from, the institutions we’ve become part of. These are people who are older than you, but also those who are your age or younger, who have come to believe themselves important and entitled, unquestionable and untouchable. They can threaten you with libel. They can shame you otherwise. They can make sure you lose jobs, or never get jobs. They will spread rumors because it’s all they have to ruin you with.
They do so in a democracy.
Because it is not writing or opinion-making that is rare in this country, it is the freedom to speak freely that is. We only have reason to fear the law if we are overstepping the lines of decency. We have every reason to fear these sacred cows because they yield power, as they do come from positions of privilege. That combination of power and privilege is enough to break the heart of any writer.
And yet every day I sit and write about this landscape of nation, trusting in the ability to add something new to a discussion, as premised on the belief – in the hope – of affecting change through words. This is not because I have a bloated sense of readership, nor is this because of some romantic cliché about the pen being mightier than the sword.
Instead it’s I need to believe in this freedom that we are told we have in this country. I need to exercise my right, to be the writer that this same nation has cradled me into becoming. I need to exercise it even more in the context of a government that knows not what to do with criticism, other than the petty dismissals and silencing.
This is not about fearlessness. It is about freedom.
And on Independence Day it is good to be reminded that in this democracy, one pays the price for this freedom.