I HAVE no words for the executions at the Paris offices of the publication Charlie Hebdo.
I stand in solidarity with the right to free speech, the right of Charlie Hebdo to do satire. But I will not pretend to know what it has been like living with Charlie Hebdo in my newsstands every week, will not pretend to understand the complexities that surround these discussions on religion and fundamentalism, free speech and journalism, in the context of Paris all these years and in the present.
And with no words, I’ve been thinking instead about Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier’s words:
“We publish caricatures every week, but people only describe them as declarations of war when it’s about the person of the Prophet or radical Islam. When you start saying that you can’t create such drawings, then the same thing will soon apply to other, more harmless representations.
“Extremists don’t need any excuses. We are only criticizing one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.”
“If they are not amused by our cartoons, they don’t need to buy our magazine. Of course they are allowed to demonstrate. The right to protest needs to be protected, so long as one abides by the law and refrains from violence.” (Spiegel Online International, Sept 2012)
Dismaying discussions, parallels
But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of thinking going on for many social media discussions coming from this country, that just add fuel to a fire that we are far from understanding really. I’m beginning to think that 2015 will be the year of (self)righteous indignation from Pinoy social media, but I digress.
Worse than the unthinking and insensitive, are the seemingly well-thought out arguments that create undue parallelisms between what has happened in Paris, and what is going on in Manila.
By far the worst has been that one that uses the case of Carlos Celdran as parallel case to that of Charlie Hebdo, because the satirists and Celdran both have the right to offend religion, we are being told.
That is an affront to those who have been executed in the name of their satirical cartoons at Charlie Hebdo.
Let us refresh our memories about the case of Celdran. In September 2010, he wore a Jose Rizal costume, and carrying a sign with DAMASO written on it, walked into a Manila Cathedral Mass with Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Edward Adams, and other bishops. As he was being escorted out by the police he screamed: “Stop getting involved in politics!”
Celdran was charged with violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, which states a penalty of imprisonment “upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”
The free speech discussion
When a Manila court found Celdran guilty of “offending religious feelings” in January 2013, human rights advocates stood behind him and Celdran asserted how this would have a chilling effect on those critical of religion. He called his guilty verdict a bad precedent. Before this verdict, in 2011, Celdran had sent a letter of reconciliation to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Recently, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Manila court’s decision, stating that: “The RTC was correct when it found that in conformity with one’s right to free exercise of religion, the faithful may, within the limits set by laws, rightfully practice and observe their beliefs, unimpeded by unfair interference from other people. It goes without saying that those people observing a certain form of religion or sect are equally entitled to the state’s protection as any of its citizens.”
The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Rina Jimenez David has asserted that the case of Celdran is one that is about how “sensibilities, especially of those in power, are so easily riled and their indignation so easily asserted.” (9 January). She goes on to say:
“The ‘right to offend’ has led to the deaths of 12 journalists and public commentators. Lovers of free speech should stand behind Celdran and uphold his—and our—right to speak out certain truths, no matter how uncomfortable.”
What an embarassing parallelism to make.
The words of Charlie Hebdo EIC Stéphane Charbonnier bears repeating: “If they are not amused by our cartoons, they don’t need to buy our magazine. Of course they are allowed to demonstrate. The right to protest needs to be protected, so long as one abides by the law and refrains from violence.”
But what Celdran did was shove his Damaso act down the throats of the bishops and cardinals and faithful gathered at the Manila Cathedral on that day in September 2010. Celdran’s protest action is not the same as a satirical magazine, or an op-ed that one can actually refuse to consume or read. Celdran could’ve stayed outside the Church and waited for the bishops to exit, and no this is not about the proper place for protest. It is about the law that gives the religious faithful the right to their religious proceedings within their place of worship. Anyone would be hard put to say that Celdran did not impinge on the right to do that.
One sympathizes with Celdran. Certainly he did not think that stunt he pulled would land him in jail, nor that it would make for such a long-drawn out case. But it doesn’t help that mainstream media has taken his side, vilifying the bishops, calling the law archaic, asserting that this is about the bigger issues of free speech and the right to offend. It doesn’t help because it allows us all to forget something that we often invoke about freedom, but fail to follow through on.
“Tour guide Carlos Celdran nabbed for interrupting mass.” ABS-CBNNews.com. 30 Sept 2010.
“The right to offend.” Rina Jimenez-David. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 9 January 2015.
“Let’s discuss: Carlos Celdran and ‘Damaso’ – Free speech or abuse of right?”
Atty. Mel Sta. Maria. Interaksyon.com. 30 January 2013.
“Human Rights Watch ‘alarmed’ by Celdran conviction for ‘Damaso’ stunt.” InterAksyon.com. 28 January 2013.
“CA upholds Celdran’s conviction for ‘offending religious feelings’.” Mark Merueñas. GMA News Online. 7 January 2015.
“Celdran apologizes to church officials for disrupting prayer service.” GMA News Online. 11 March 2011.