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[Y-SPACE] Democracy and Dissent in the Philippine Context

By Arianne Kyle Saturnino

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of speech was proclaimed a fundamental human right by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946. According to the Index in Censorship, it "underpins most other rights and allows them to flourish". Moreover, it is also our right to express our voice. It can be said that the right to freely express oneself on critical and relevant societal issues, access knowledge, and keep the forces that be accountable is definitely a very important aspect towards a health development of the society.

For democracy to flourish, freedom of speech is vital. It is why, in democracies, this right is fiercely in security. "No law may pass that abridges freedom of speech, expression, or the press, or the right of the people on peacefully assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances," says Article III, Section 4 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

The 1987 Constitution resulted from the people's desire to depose the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power, and it was crucial to the rebuilding of a democratic Philippine society. The dictatorship was a dark time in our history, which curtailed the people's human rights, and those who dared to oppose, if not imprisoned, were also killed. We, the Filipino people, were once again free to express our views on political issues, no matter how divisive they might be, after many years of being silenced.

A dictatorship can equate to a lack of freedom of speech in which the people will subsume under a few wishes. The public would be unable to engage in decision-making based on the free exchange of information and ideas if freedom of speech is not secured. People would be unable to make rational decisions without it. It is impossible in a democratic society. Consequently, we must not allow our right to express ourselves to be limited once more freely.

Silencing The Opposition

What is going on in this government's Legislative Department is troubling. The current administration removed senators belonging to or allied with the Liberal Party - from their Senate positions due to their opposing views on critical issues hounding this administration. Senators Franklin Drilon relieved on his role as Senate President Pro Tempore; also Senator Bam Aquino on his position as Chair of the Committee on Education; along with Senator Risa Hontiveros on her work as Chair of the Health Committee, and nonetheless, Senator Francis Pangilinan on his position as Chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Food. The four senators have since joined the Senate minority.

Administration supporters who voted against the death penalty's reinstatement in the House of Representatives stripped off their committee assignments. The following individuals demoted from their positions as committee chairs: Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former President and Pampanga Rep; Vilma Santos-Recto, Batangas Rep; Carlos Zarate, Emmi de Jesus, Mariano Michael Velarde Jr., Antonio Tinio, Sitti Hataman, and Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, Party-List Reps; Evelina Escudero, Sorsogon Rep; John Christopher Belmonte, Quezon City Rep; Henedina Abad; and Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao.

On the one hand, such acts by Congress leaders may construe as an exercise in party discipline, especially about those who are members of the ruling party. And this is advantageous. Furthermore, because the selection of committee chairpersons is a feature of the Senate and House of Representatives' big bosses, there is nothing legally unusual about what happened. What happened in Congress may very well be characterized as routine. However, we look at it. Banning individuals from positions of leadership is simply a penalty for holding different views from those in authority. It seems that Congress' direction, which is closely associated with President Rodrigo Duterte, is intolerant to opposing perspectives, even though they won even without their votes. We should condemn such intolerance.

If this is an isolated case of a power show, it may not be a cause for concern. However, when viewed in the broader sense of this administration's government approach, it becomes worrying. This government is uninterested in hearing alternative views. It's a government that threatens people who disagree with its actions, policies, and procedures.

Consider how harshly the president responds to human rights activists who condemn how he carried out his war on drugs, in which over 8,000 killed people without due process. Consider how hard they are attempting to delegitimize Senator Leila de Lima as a male, a woman, and a public servant. This government does not accept dissent. What they can do to silence people is alarming. Let us be careful. We must uphold and protect our right to freedom of speech. In a democracy, dissent is necessary and must not be in the form of punishment. A democracy that does not allow for dissent is not a democracy at all.

Flawed Democracy in the Philippines

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Philippines' democracy remains flawed, as the country slipped one spot to No. 55 out of 167 countries in the London-based think tank's democracy index last year. The Philippines, led by President Rodrigo R. Duterte, obtained a ranking of 6.56, down from 6.64 in 2019. The Philippines trailed Southeast Asian neighbors Taiwan (11), Malaysia (39), and Timor Leste (44) but outperformed Indonesia (64), Thailand (73), Singapore (74), Myanmar (135), Vietnam (137), and Laos (138). (161).

"While our country appears to drop one spot in the said index, our status is far from being listed as hybrid or authoritarian regime. Because the analysis focuses on how governments have reacted to the current pandemic," said Salvador S. Panelo, Mr. Duterte's chief lawyer, in a statement.

"With public health as a top priority, the President decided to restrict public mobilization to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, a policy lauded by the World Health Organization (WHO)," he said. It does not prohibit the government from adopting initiatives and policies to promote a more vibrant democracy, according to Mr. Panelo.

Arianne Kyle Saturnino is a 22-year-old Legal Management student from Colegio De San Juan de Letran.

YSPACE is a platform open for young writers to contribute their worth-sharing thoughts and stories to the world. It is a space for young people and by the young people which aims to promote a strong sense of empowerment and inspiration to young Filipinos.

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