COVID-19 Op-ed

Threats to the Constitutional Right to Freedom of Expression in the Time of COVID-19

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Robert Jhon Salazar
Juris Doctor Student, Far Eastern University Institute of Law

Freedom of expression is said to be essential for the search of truth and in the promotion of individual self-realization and self-determination (Bernas, 2009.) In the Philippines, it is enshrined as a constitutional right. Article 3 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press. The freedom to express one’s belief and thoughts is the foundation of democracy and efforts to suppress such liberty pose a significant threat to a society.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, people forced into quarantine heavily rely on both traditional and online social media for information on situation of the country. More importantly, these platforms are crucial in voicing one’s critical feedback on statements and policies related to the health crisis.

The militarized approach to the health crisis by the Philippine Government has led to the suspension of some basic rights and freedoms, specifically the freedom to express one’s self. This has resulted in a number of summon and arrest based on intentions to disseminate information. On April 2, 2020, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno revealed that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) issued subpoena to citizens for “simply airing their sentiments on the government’s response to COVID-19 on social media”[1]. On April 3, 2020, the CNN reported  that “the NBI has summoned at least 17 private citizens in the past few days for allegedly violating a law that prohibits posting false information online. Seasoned lawyer Chel Diokno said authorities did not disclose the exact posts in question.” [2]

This was further aggravated when ABS-CBN, one of the largest media companies, was forced to shut down amid the pandemic. This has been viewed as a huge blow to the Filipino democratic values, which had only been restored more than thirty years ago after the fall of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

To make matters even worse, the Anti-Terror Bill, which is being railroaded by both Houses of Congress, has raised grave concerns on its chilling impacts on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Because of the loose definitions of acts of terror contained in the pending bill, there is a risk that any person could be identified as a terrorist simply because of his activities and expressions that are not in consonance with the agenda of the government and acts perceived as threatening by law enforcers. In short, anyone who dissents and disobeys may be tagged as a terrorist.

The State should be reminded of its constitutional duty to respect, promote and protect the right to freedom of expression. Calls to junk this draconian bill makes pure sense at a time when democracy is being threatened and human rights are being attacked on a regular basis. If the government continues to punish dissident voices, the means of searching for truth will breakdown. With limited opportunities and platforms to speak about our lived experiences and truths, prospects of a free, well-informed, prosperous, and peaceful society will be bleak.

List of References:

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[1] https://twitter.com/cnnphilippines/status/1245508275564503040?s=20 (last visited on May 16, 2020).
[2] https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/4/3/what-to-do-NBI-subpoena.html (last visited on May 16, 2020).

 


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