• Masters of doublespeak, or just plain dumb?

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    If there was ever an example of why the Philippine legal system should be considered a complete farce, this legislative brain-cramp is it: On Wednesday, two Mindanao Representatives (Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City, and Maximo Rodriguez of the Abante Mindanao party-list, and yes, they are brothers) filed House Bill (HB) 2562 to “decriminalize” libel by removing the penalty of imprisonment from the current law, which Rufus Rodriguez said “infringes on the freedom of speech and of expression and negatively impacts on media practitioners.”

    Instead of the prison sentence of up to six years and a fine up to P6,000, a conviction for libel under the proposed new law will carry the penalty of a fine of between P10,000 and P30,000, “in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party.” Rodriguez explained his reasoning by pointing out that, “While the penalty of fine must be sustained, for no crime should go unpunished, imposing a penalty of imprisonment will work more to discourage members of the media from performing their duties with zeal and vigilance.”

    Here’s a short list of words the brothers Rodriguez ought to look up in the dictionary: “decriminalize,” “discourage,” “infringe” and one more very important one, “gag,” since that is what their new and improved proposed law appears to intend: “The penalty of P10,000 to P30,000 shall be imposed upon any reporter, editor, or manager of a newspaper, daily or magazine, who shall publish facts connected with the private life of another and offensive to the honor, virtue and reputation of said person, even though said publication be made in connection with or under the pretext that it is necessary in the narration of any judicial or administrative proceedings wherein such facts have been mentioned.” [Emphasis added] In other words, even if uncomplimentary personal information about someone is a matter of public record in an official proceeding, repeating it could result in a hefty fine, the stigma of a criminal conviction (something which is itself rather offensive to one’s honor, virtue, and reputation, particularly if earned as a result of telling the truth of some matter), and whatever other penalties might arise from a civil suit by the aggrieved party. How all of that works to be less discouraging than the current law is a mystery.

    The only thing the brothers Rodriguez got right is their vague understanding that the present libel law is unfair and potentially restricts free speech, but what they perhaps actually meant to say is it is their view that it is not unfair and potentially restrictive enough. Decriminalizing libel is a rather easy job: Simply remove it from the Penal Code. While there indeed should be consequences for irresponsible and malicious behavior on the part of the media, these should be determined by civil proceedings, not criminal courts. The fact that they are not is actually what infringes on free speech and expression, not the penalties involved. Not only does HB 2562 fail to realize that (and thus fail to address what most of the world’s media watchdogs consider a gross violation of human rights), it actually increases the threat of abusive retribution to those who publish things that put others in a bad light, no matter how conscientiously done.

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    Fortunately, perhaps, we have the US Congress to remind us that local lawmakers do not hold a monopoly on dangerously inane ideas. Supposedly, a letter dated September 30 and signed by the two ranking members of the House Committee on Foreign Relations as well as 99 other members of the House of Representatives was sent to President Barack Obama, urging his “intervention” with President Benigno Aquino 3rd to address widespread corruption in the Philippines. And what is the issue causing the congressmen such concern? It’s not anything that would ordinarily fall within the purview of the Foreign Relations Committee (payments by President Aquino’s office to rebel groups would be a good example of something that would normally grab the committee’s attention), but rather “land-grabbing.”

    Certainly, the feeble level of protection for property rights in this country is a real problem, an area in which the Philippines routinely gets a failing grade in annual global rankings like the Ease of Doing Business Report and the Global Competitiveness Index. In the context of current events, however, bringing up the issue is the golfing equivalent of lining up a tee shot and cold-topping the ball straight into a pond. Coming from a Congress that is obviously unable to properly manage its own country’s affairs at the moment, the suggestion that President Obama not only can but should intercede in this country’s domestic concerns would be hilarious if it wasn’t so offensive.

    Since property rights, or the lack thereof, in the Philippines are only indirectly if at all relevant to US foreign policy, we have to wonder what the subtext of the letter to President Obama actually was. The US Congress, much like the legislature in this country, seems to operate on the principle of “none of us is as stupid as all of us,” so the strength of an argument or policy point being made tends to be inversely proportional to the number of signatures attached to it. In this case, the issuance of the letter seems to be intended to establish a pretext for reducing or eliminating some US funding for the Philippines sometime in the future; the letter specifically noted $434 million in Millennium Development funding (which is due to end in 2015, and will likely be replaced with something) and $50 million in military assistance. That’s something that should obviously be a concern to the Philippines, but not a serious one at this time; any action on that is at least a year away, on the other side of another midterm election in the US.

    Fortunately, perhaps, the US budget crisis—caused by the very same legislators who feel authorized to direct their president to make domestic policy demands on the leader of another country—scuttled President Obama’s travel plans and stopped the offending letter at his desk; no word yet if Secretary of State John Kerry will bring up the matter here, but it’s a safe bet that he probably will not, since he shares his boss’s more realistic understanding of diplomacy rather than that of a bunch of ignorant yahoos on Capitol Hill.

    Nevertheless, the lesson from these two reports of dubious legislative behavior from opposite sides of the world should not be overlooked: Regardless if the output of elected representatives is doublespeak or just plain dumb, it can be potentially dangerous. We should all be reminded to maintain our vigilance.

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