There’s the Rub

Law and behold

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A couple of things show how sifting through things can help us avoid problems. One is Pia Cayetano filing a bill that calls for the repeal of an “antiquated” law that curtails freedom of expression. Two is the Supreme Court issuing a new TRO stopping government from enforcing the Cybercrime Law. I warmly applaud the second, I’m not so sure about the first.

Cayetano explains her initiative thus: “[Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code] punishes 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…. Freedom of speech and expression is essential to a sovereign state…. A person living in a democracy cannot expect that his beliefs will be free from all criticism.”

In fact freedom of expression has little, if nothing, to do with it. The confusion stems from the reason the courts gave for sending Carlos Celdran to jail, which is offending religious sensibilities. This is not a case of offending religious sensibilities, this is a case of violating the right to worship. I agree the latter is not a crime deserving of jail, which means I also agree with Cayetano’s move to remove it from the Penal Code, which prescribes criminal sanctions for it. But I do  not  agree that one is well within his rights to do something like this, a right covered by freedom of expression. It is a transgression, and though it does not deserve jail, it deserves censure.

The matter becomes clearer if you look at the case of Mideo Cruz. Cruz has not been prosecuted or jailed, and for good reason. He  has  offended religious sensibilities, far more than Celdran. He has painted religious icons in ways that the pious have called blasphemous and sacrilegious, but that is his right. That is how he sees things as an artist. That is freedom of expression. The Church has called him names, one Cultural Center official has resigned, the faithful have reviled him: That is their right, too. But they may not do anything else.

Invading a church or interrupting a religious service is another matter entirely. That is not a right, that is a wrong. Of course it offends religious feelings, but that is not all it does. It interrupts a person in the middle of communing with his God. That is foul. Proscribing it quite incidentally is not just for the protection of the worshipper, it is for the protection of the transgressor. Try doing that in the middle of a Black Nazarene or Our Lady of Peñafrancia procession and see if you live to tell the tale, or live to be in jail.

You want to abrogate Article 133, or remove it from the Penal Code, on the ground that the punishment is worse than the crime itself, that’s fine. But you want to abrogate it on the ground of freedom of expression, that’s dangerous. People have as much right to worship as they have to express themselves.

The principle is still live and let live, and not, as Ian Fleming, James Bond, and Paul McCartney put it, live and let die.

From the other end, I laud the Supreme Court for preventing the Cybercrime Law from taking effect. I will laud it even more if it prevents it permanently from taking effect by declaring it unconstitutional. At least in its present form with all those libel provisions. Those things infringe on free speech, those things infringe on free expression.

It’s not true at all that if you do not overstep the bounds of truth, you’ll have nothing to fear from the law. At the very least, P-Noy will not be President forever. The law will, unless it is amended, abridged, or revoked, which will require some doing after inertia sets in. You have a law like that under a Gloria Arroyo-type, you’re going to be in deep organic fertilizer.

At the very most, even under P-Noy’s rule, it will be open to abuse. It will be the hardest thing to call anyone corrupt, or hint at it. Not Erap, who has been convicted of it; not Gloria, who will be prosecuted for it; not Juan Ponce Enrile, who has written a book saying he is the opposite of it; not Renato Corona, who continues to remain free despite having been ousted as chief justice under the weight of it; not even Ferdinand Marcos, who gave whole new dimensions to it. The law is on their side. We saw during the Erap and Corona impeachment trials how law functions in this country: It is the magic wand that makes black white and white black.

The Cybercrime Law takes effect, you’re going to have libel suits flying all over the place. From the same crowd that shrilly wants “right of reply.”

Do we have recklessness and irresponsibility in cyberspace? Yes. In the same way we do in mainstream media—radio, TV, and the tabloids are full of it. But jailing the offenders, like jailing Celdran, doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it worse.

Far, far worse in the case of media, social or mainstream. That’s so because for all the excesses of cyberspace, it has been an enormously potent force for people empowerment. The social media in particular have allowed ordinary citizens, and not just pundits, reputable or self-appointed, to weigh in on issues of national importance, particularly corruption. Something they have not been able to do in the past. We need it if we are going to fight corruption, or want to succeed in it. Government can only do so much, the public has to do the rest. Public opprobrium helps, public revulsion helps, public excoriation helps, the way it does in other countries where public officials sullied by scandals are forced to take their leaves, if not take their lives.

That should be encouraged, not dissuaded. That should be embraced, not scorned. That should be cherished, not threatened.

Some laws make you feel lofty, some just make you say:

Law and behold.

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