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Editorial

Overreach and censorship

/ 05:07 AM September 12, 2020

At no other time does the saying “an idle mind is the devil’s playground” apply with particular relevance than these days of lockdowns and quarantines.

And at no other place, it seems, does it apply better than at the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), where members have been suddenly rendered idle, though not jobless, by the suspension of the production and release of new movies and television shows.

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To recall, the MTRCB has been charged with “reviewing” movies and TV shows and classifying which are worth viewing by the general public, by adults only, or which should be banned outright. But these days, quarantine restrictions covering both the production of movies and TV shows and the operation of movie theaters have left the MTRCB idle. Board members are left twiddling their thumbs while income from producers who paid to have their releases reviewed suddenly dried up.

Maybe it’s this imposed recess that has propelled the MTRCB, headed by former congresswoman Rachel Arenas, to turn creative (and perhaps desperate) and search for additional, or alternate, means of sourcing income.

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But their proposal has in turn raised a typhoon of protest, denunciations, speculations as to their motives, and even questions about their collective intelligence. This is because the MTRCB said it wants to be given authority to regulate the content of Netflix and other online streaming services which lay beyond the reach of the government reviewers. For many years, the MTRCB seemed happy enough to ignore the content of online entertainment and information platforms. But now that the internet has increasingly become the dominant source of content for millions of Filipinos, suddenly the MTRCB feels it should have a say on what we can and cannot view on our devices.

The Board’s reasons or justifications for expanding their reach and power grow farcical by the day—from ensuring that “contemporary Filipino values” are promoted on both local and foreign fare, to ensuring that the content isn’t pirated. How they aim to do this is still a mystery.

There is, for one, the sheer volume of materials available, with millions of movies, TV shows, music and dance videos, gags and reality shows, vlogs, and documentaries from all over the world available for streaming. That staggering number grows by the day. Will the MTRCB members, even with their imposed idleness, have the time and leisure to view and rate this deluge of materials?

Another question that needs to be raised is the simple one of necessity. In many instances, much of the content, especially from abroad, has already been reviewed and rated by their own government authorities. The streaming services also offer control features that allow families to self-regulate their viewing habits, to ensure child-friendly fare, for instance. As the Directors’ Guild of the Philippines Inc. (DGPI) pointed out in a statement protesting the MTRCB’s bid, “Streaming sites like Netflix already have classifications, content warnings, and parental controls in place. There is no need for more state control of what adults or their children can or cannot see.”

The biggest issue, though, is legality. Media law professor Marichu Lambino says that the Board has no jurisdiction over video streaming apps because these are considered “property” and only courts enjoy jurisdiction over them.

Even senator and former MTRCB head Grace Poe feels no love for the agency she once served. The Board’s move, she said, is “counterproductive and ridiculous,” asserting that she is personally against it.

Poe is joined by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who believes that platforms like Netflix are capable of regulating their own content. “If the platform is able to effectively self-regulate and has installed features through which access, particularly by certain age groups, can be limited, then there is no role left for the MTRCB to play,” he said.

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Speaking on behalf of the entertainment industry, the DGPI made this plea: “Let us encourage the growth of the local film industry and the viewing public by preserving freedom of expression and self-regulation. In an era where choices are expanded, let us not contract ours.”

Arenas has bemoaned the tendency of the public to equate any act undertaken by the MTRCB to censorship and negativity, adding that their aim is supposedly to empower the public and encourage viewers to decide for themselves. “We will do post-monitoring [to ensure that] you are complying with our guidelines, that you are complying with Filipino contemporary values,” an ABS-CBN report quoted her as saying.

But when protecting “contemporary Filipino values” consists of limiting the public’s access to entertainment and information in these times of already constrained choices, then what we have is state overreach and censorship, plain and simple.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns, MTRCB, netflix, Quarantine, Rachel Arenas
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