These are dangerous times, and not only health-wise. As Filipinos take special measures to safeguard themselves and their loved ones from the deadly virus, to treat others with respect and compassion, and to express gratitude in word and deed to the heroes, both the lowly and the prominent, who keep everything together and functioning, let not their attention be thoroughly diverted from the rapidly shrinking democratic space.
The disturbing case of Joshua B. Molo, editor in chief of the UE Dawn, illustrates how small tyrants have sprung from the interstices of power as though emboldened by the sense of impunity permeating the Duterte administration.
From accounts, Molo, 20, had posted his thoughts on the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His less than glowing Facebook post did not sit well with his former teachers at Cabiao National High School in Nueva Ecija, who upbraided him and engaged in an online exchange with him about it.
At one point, Molo quit the exchange and went on Instagram where, he recalled in a subsequent statement, “I expressed disappointment on people’s apathy and indifference to the plight of the poor amid COVID-19, and [said] these may be due to their position of privilege.”
One of the teachers, who apparently helped train Molo in journalism preparatory to his taking the top post of the official student publication of the University of the East, went to the Philippine National Police’s cybercrime division in Cabiao to ask that his social media accounts be reviewed. Quoting the teacher, Molo said the police’s counsel was to just let him post his antigovernment critiques so he could be picked up and put under arrest.
On April 5, Molo was summoned by officials of Barangay San Fernando Sur in Cabiao to a mediation meeting where a barangay official informed him that his former teacher had filed a complaint. The teacher also told him: that the complaint was backed by two of his other high school teachers; that they took offense at his posts; and that they had enough evidence to charge him with cyberlibel. The two other teachers also said he should come out with a public apology on video.
Molo said the barangay official laid out his supposed options: sign a blotter report stating that he would no longer post antigovernment comments on social media and issue a public apology, or face a cyberlibel case and possible arrest and detention. Feeling threatened by his former teacher’s statements and by the police’s red-tagging, he said he agreed to sign the report “sans the text on posting antigovernment statements” and to issue a public apology on video.
Thus was this young man initiated in the ways of official impunity, an experience from which he thankfully emerged still convinced of the correctness of his position: “I decided to go public to continue my advocacy for free expression… I will continue to do so to uphold the public’s right to information and to freely express opinions, even if these are contrary to the views of government and its supporters.”
It is this prevailing impunity that allows minor functionaries like Eric Distor, OIC of the Office of the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation, to attempt to impose a damper on perceived negative talk online. Did he, in summoning social media users commenting on government response to the pandemic, think it was in step with a population locked down and muted by face masks?
In times of crisis, rulers and their subalterns employ draconian measures to protect their interests; the cunning seize (or make) opportunities to bolster their footing, and the stupid find the chance to display ignorance. Thus, Quezon City police, who days earlier had rounded up urban poor residents gathered on a portion of Edsa to call for relief goods from government, thought nothing of storming community kitchens to tear down posters demanding food aid and mass testing for COVID-19.
Thus, Interior Undersecretary Martin Diño announced, incorrectly and incoherently, on March 21 that no more human rights were obtaining because of the “state of emergency.”
Shoot them if they resist, President Duterte told his uniformed forces in reference to the food protesters and their supposed instigators from the Left. And yet, early this week, in another of those occasions when his words wildly contradicted what was happening on the ground, he said those with a bone to pick over his administration’s handling of the raging health crisis were at liberty to do so online. “I govern properly and right. If it makes you happy, then you smile. If not, you criticize me,” he declared, adding: “Walang pigil, social media, lahat kayo.”
Today, Araw ng Kagitingan, we celebrate the Filipino wartime soldiers who spoke truth to power by their deeds. Their uncommon valor acquires resonance in these dangerous times when speaking truth to power is an act at once bracing and terrifying.
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