Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The invisible Pinoy

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?,” Ralph Elllison wrote at the end of his novel, Invisible Man.
It’s difficult enough to be noticed in a world of diversity. Yet, in Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility, its editors and contributors seriously lament the exclusion of Filipinos in Canada’s circles of public policy, academic faculty lists, and the public culture.
In this new volume of essays, University of Toronto Professor Roland Sintos Coloma, book co-editor and his fellow contributors are challenging Filipino migrants in Canada to underscore various facets of their lives that have remained largely invisible to the Canadian mainstream. This new cohort of academic scholars hopes their work will add to the growing discussion on social exclusion. But they may come up short of being “scholars as advocates for” if and when their ideas are put to the task outside the confines of the academe and in the rough-and-tumble world of policy and culture.
A new book, Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility, edited by Roland Sintos
Coloma, et al. Click link to view "Filipinos in Canada, the Book, Launched in Toronto,"
courtesy of FilipinoWebChannel,
Presently the largest migrant group in Canada, Filipino-Canadians find it hard to shine in the multicultural limelight of myriad visible ethnic minorities. Let alone that their Filipino-American cousins in the South have for so long struggled in the past to define and conquer their own painful invisibility.
At least the works of Filipino academics in the United States which preceded this recent work by Prof. Coloma et al have clearly identified the legacy of American colonization on the invisibility of early Filipino migrants in the American public. More particularly, these early works pointed out the harmful impact of the U.S. project of “benevolent assimilation” that brought American institutions and popular culture to the islands.
In explaining the Filipino’s “incommensurable sense of nonbeing,” Oscar V. Campomanes called this invisibility as both symptom and mechanism of a culture of U.S. imperialism. Antonio Tiongson et al, In Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse, explained that the prevailing American culture and politics at the time tended to deny the presence of neocolonial subjects, such as immigrant Filipinos, to maintain the U.S. historical and moral alibis for its empire abroad.
The early Filipino works on social exclusion in America did not merely expound on the absence of Filipinos in American public policy and culture, they also touched on grievances against other Asian Americans who had harboured a denigrating view of Filipinos, ranging from their institutional exclusion and marginalization to events that promoted inequality to outright bigotry.
Not surprisingly, there is no comparable depth in analysis in Prof. Coloma’s book although it continues the pioneering work of the early Filipino-American academics. The very obvious reason for this is the lack of history of colonial relationship between Canada and the Philippines, and, to some extent, the tendency to ignore the achievements of some Filipinos, no matter how small, in making themselves noticed. At the very least, too, its contributors could have attempted to relate the invisibility of Filipinos and other ethnic minorities in Canada to the legacy of colonization in their respective cultures inasmuch as majority of Canadian immigrants are also from former colonies of Western powers.
Viewed in the present context of racial discourse in Canada, the book correctly identified that being visible may not be the easiest or most practical solution to invisibility. Especially when framed within Canada’s multicultural society where minorities remain visible within their ethnic groups but missing in the larger Canadian picture.
This reminds me of a line in the movie Maid in Manhattan (admittedly not a very good academic analogy) wherein Jennifer Lopez, referring to her character as a Latina hotel housekeeper, says to Christopher Marshall, an aspiring New York senator played by Ralph Fiennes: “Half of the town is laughing at me now, and the other half thinks I’m invisible.”
Citing Thobani’s earlier work, Prof. Coloma and his co-editors reiterate that Canadian multiculturalism has enabled the material integration of immigrants and at the same time their exclusion from the nation as a whole. But isn’t this the natural outcome of migration from a Third World condition to a society dominated by the powerful and dominant white population?
Why do we complain too much, or, as Filipinos, too little?
Where we come from, more than 80 percent of the population is largely invisible on account of their poverty. Here, after nearly more than 50 years of migration to Canada, it is hardly inconceivable that in a short span of time, Filipinos could have shattered the glass ceiling and made themselves visible. Perhaps, it is a self-defeating notion for Filipinos, being both a visible ethnic minority and an invisible member of the larger Canadian society, to rise so fast to the level of recognition that marks the dominant culture.
The volume of complaint about our invisibility reaches its highest decibel mostly in academic studies, and this is why it is doubtful whether Prof. Coloma’s book could actually translate into the empowerment of our invisible community.
For example, when the book ignores the works of genuine artists in our midst but gives recognition to lesser literary lights, there must be something wrong with the way we perceive things or the way the book editors and contributors define who are poets and artists. Or perhaps, they consider as artists only those who perform in the limited spaces of the Kapisanan Centre (Santa Guerilla and Future Folk), or Magkaisa Centre (Maleta).
There are some Filipino-Canadians whose poetry collections have been published by mainstream Canadian publishers and in Canadian literary journals, and a number of more established local playwrights whose works have also been staged in Canadian theatres. Unlike the crappy poem selected for inclusion in the book and the works of others that promote the spoken word, hip-hop or rap, we have genuine artists in our community who can express their works through creative writing comparable to mainstream literature. Unfortunately, they’re the ones invisible in the book. And if this were not enough, Prof. Coloma and his fellow editors would even denigrate these true artists by saying that the rigours of academic scholarship are much more demanding than the creativity that artists must unleash to articulate their vision whether in essays, poems, stories, novels, paintings or music.
One area that Prof. Coloma’s book completely missed investigating is the pathetic role of current Filipino community organizations in civic engagement, especially in promoting political representation of Filipino immigrants. Judging by how these various organizations come out of the woodshed every summer to celebrate traditional Philippine events such as Independence Day and other entertainment festivities, one would be led to believe that indeed Filipinos are a very visible community in Canada. Except that these celebrations are annual charades with a limited lifespan, with many of them lacking any genuine motivation to raise the visibility of Filipinos in public spaces that matter, i.e., real achievements in the arts and the sciences. While these organizations can be effective platforms in facilitating integration into the mainstream and in giving their constituents political voice and power, they have become either apathetic or have prevented their members from participating in the larger Canadian body politic.
Why is this so?
Perhaps the government’s policy of multiculturalism could be the root cause for our social exclusion. However sanguine, multiculturalism has a lulling effect that satisfies the desire of ethnic community organizations and groups to celebrate their cultural heritage without giving them access to opportunities in the corridors of political and economic power. In short, our community organizations have become instruments of social exclusion, albeit for a sham multiculturalist aspiration of equality.
Prof. Coloma and his co-editors have neglected to address and reconcile this apparent contradiction between multiculturalism and social exclusion. If their purpose was really to disturb, question and challenge the Filipinos’ invisibility in the Canadian public policy and culture, this issue is worth academically probing.
As “scholars as advocates for,” Prof. Coloma and his collective group have a monumental task to bridge the vast divide between academic information and knowledge and the real world that their subjects live in. It is not enough to discuss the invisibility of Filipinos among like-minded people inside the walls of the academe while at the same time turning a blind eye to those Pinoys who continue to disappear in society’s blindspot. There are legitimate and visible bodies out there, if they just care to look. It will be a disservice to those who have struggled for many years to belong to the Canadian mainstream to continue to remain invisible because, judged by even their own compatriots such as Dr. Coloma et al, they are not worth a second look, and much like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, cannot account for their nonbeing.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Farewell to arms

There is a popular expression in Muslim Mindanao that a Moro would rather sleep with his rifle than with his wife. You would think that’s a joke. But the bigger joke is what the recently signed Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro would try to accomplish, which according to some observers, including the government panel, is to ultimately disarm the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Disarming the MILF or decommissioning its forces is envisaged in the Framework Agreement. This could happen at the tail end of the peace process or sometime during the normalization process, a fact that is totally unknown to the negotiating parties. Under the Framework agreement, the decommissioning of its forces will be undertaken by the MILF on a graduated program. Thereafter, all law enforcement functions will be transferred from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the Bangsamoro police force.
Renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) vow to continue their
armed uprising despite the peace agreement between the government and the
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).Click link to to view "Philippine rebels
vow to fight" and Al Jazeera interview with BIFF leader Ameril Umbrakato,
In other words, there is nothing in the Framework Agreement that requires the Bangsamoro forces to surrender their arms to the government. What the Framework Agreement hopes to accomplish is to put the military forces and arsenal of the Bangsamoro army beyond its present use, i.e., all militia and firearms will be used for peacekeeping or policing purposes and not for the furtherance of military or combat objectives. This means the MILF will be recognized both as a police force and as a regular army in the Philippines.
In any state of belligerence, the disarming of the other side, normally the losing side of the conflict is never an easy task. Total disarmament may not be achieved since there would always be those who could hold on to their weapons and continue their resistance even as small brigands. Carl von Clausewitz in his seminal book, On War, wrote that many treaties have been concluded before one of the antagonists could be called powerless, or the balance of power has been seriously altered. In this case, it is always the victors who determine the conditions for surrender and the laying down of weapons.
But how much more difficult is it to achieve disarming an army when neither side of the conflict can claim victory? The Framework Agreement is being acclaimed as a road to peace, not an agreement to declare the final cessation of hostilities. We’re still a long way from there.
One of the many obstacles to the achievement of peace in Mindanao, not to mention the obvious legal hurdles to the formation of a Bangsamoro juridical entity, is the question of decommissioning the Bangsamoro army. Since the MILF has an equal right to determine the final terms and conditions of peace, it may insist on its army and followers to hold on to their weapons. The MILF, especially its rank and file soldiers, understands that giving up their weapons could be synonymous to giving up their struggle for self-determination.
The history of peace negotiations with the Philippine government is replete with instances of betrayal. Luis Taruc of the Hukbalahap and his fellow rebels, who decided to leave their armed struggle to join the Democratic Alliance in Congress during the third republic under Manuel Roxas, found their quest for parliamentary changes crushed when they were not allowed to take their elected seats. Exactly the same would be repeated during the Quirino administration when the Huks surrendered their arms in exchange for amnesty. The government accused the Huks of not presenting all their arms while the latter accused the government of bad faith.
Already, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group from the MILF, had announced that they would not recognize the peace accord between the MILF and the government. To them, the peace agreement is surrender and they vowed not to waver from their armed struggle towards a separate Muslim homeland. This declaration of continuing resistance is a realistic roadblock to disbanding the MILF army.
Accept it or not, most MILF jihadists are hoping peace doesn’t come.
An MILF jihadist posted on the Internet the concerns of a Moro fighter named Abdullah. A young man in his early 20s, Abdullah is a veteran of many jungle battles and he says he is ready to die for the cause of a separate Bangsamoro nation while he clutches a rusty M-60 machine gun.
Abdullah says, “I sleep with my machine gun and never go anywhere without it. I cannot part with my weapon.” He said he is not prepared to lay down his weapon even if a final peace deal is signed. “It’s not in my blood to be a farmer,” he said.
The veteran Filipino journalist, Emil Jurado, wrote that “many Muslims believe that power emanates from the barrel of a gun. From childhood, they are taught how to handle a gun—it protects them from rival clans. Clan wars in Muslim Mindanao are a way of life.”
Perhaps, that’s the primary reason why the Americans tried to neutralize the Muslims in Mindanao after the Spaniards failed to subjugate them. The Americans started their pacification of Mindanao by giving concessions to the Sultan of Jolo, such as allowing the Sultan to collect customs duties in places not occupied by the Americans, paying the Sultan and his leading datus monthly salaries, and not interfering with religious matters. Nonetheless, the Muslims in Mindanao have never been colonized by the Spaniards, the Americans and the Japanese.
What does the present Aquino government promise the MILF leaders that this time, the Framework Agreement will work? Does President Aquino think that it is enough to allow the MILF insurgents to form a political party and run in democratic elections so they can have the chance at leading the proposed autonomous region?
President Aquino is said to be seriously considering the idea of getting the Muslim rebels to surrender their guns in exchange for cash. Aquino believes this will extend livelihood benefits to the MILF. MILF members who voluntarily disarm themselves by turning their firearms will be included in the government list of beneficiaries of a livelihood assistance program.
President Aquino, however, refuses to call his proposal as buying of MILF firearms. He insists that it is a process of providing benefits to the rebels who will voluntarily surrender their weapons. But no matter how one looks at the President’s proposal, it is still exchanging cash for guns. The only problem with this idea is it has been tried in the past and it did not work.
It reminds me of Toronto’s Pixel for Pistols, when the city police tried to attract those who have handguns to turn them in for a Nikon camera. Or Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program for jihadists that includes material inducements like giving thousands of dollars to pamper its graduates, or paying for weddings, furniture or a new Toyota. One thing they have in common: both were failures.
The right to bear arms by Muslims could be likened to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution that protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. When the Philippines was formulating its Constitution in 1935 for the Commonwealth government which was to be a transition government before independence, the United States made sure that the right to bear arms would not be included in the bill of rights that was copied from the U.S. Constitution. The fear of the U.S. was that giving the same right to bear arms to Filipinos would enable them to form their militias that could rebel and overrun the U.S. colonial government.
Although the Muslims in Mindanao were never pacified and conquered by the Americans and the ensuing independent Philippine government, their relationship with weapons has long been an integral part of their history and culture. Much deeper than their right to bear arms is their fundamental right to be free in running their own government, free from colonizers or from the central government in Manila.
Disarming the MILF or the Muslim in general might take more than a Framework Agreement for peace. The Framework Agreement stipulates that “It is through normalization that communities can return to conditions where they can achieve their desired quality of life, which includes the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods and political participation within a peaceful deliberative society.” If this particular paragraph of the Framework Agreement means that all Muslims must give up their arms in order to achieve normalization, no Muslim in his or her right mind would give up now what they have been fighting for decades or even for more than a century.
If the national government is willing to cede local autonomy to a Bangsamoro entity, then it should also be prepared to accept the right of this new entity to establish its own army. Demanding that Muslims surrender their weapons as a precondition for peace seems a nonnegotiable issue. The matter of control of the jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro army lies on a strict delineation of lines which should not be crossed. Otherwise, the truce will be broken and both sides will be back to square one.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fear of the Bangsamoro state

Today there is a far less rigid understanding of the meaning of independence than was the case during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The growing perception is that flexibility is needed with respect to the status of some territories that do not desire or cannot sustain full independence but are not “dependent” territories.
The Compact of Free Association is a case in point. Three small nations that used to be part of the U.S.-administered U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands – the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau, entered into the so-called Compact of Free Association which terminated their status as wards of the international community in 1986 and gave them a new status of free association with the United States. These new freely associated states retain their sovereign right of self-determination but have assigned their security and defence and the conduct of foreign affairs to the United States, the latter being the larger partner.
This concept of sovereignty association has also been tried by the independence movement in Quebec but the separatists lost in the 1995 referendum by a close vote. There are also those who view the European Union from its beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community as a complex sovereignty association of a special nature. More than a century earlier, a number of tiny European fragments left over from the pre-Napoleonic period – San Marino, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Monaco – were recognized as technically independent by the Concert of Europe.
Bangsamoro rebels of Mindanao, Philippines. Click link to view "Bangsamoro
Thus, those who fear that the formation of the Bangsamoro nation could lead to separation might be out of touch with history. It is almost inevitable that a population with a very distinct cultural and religious ancestry will always pine for freedom to self-governance, if not alone, through an association with the larger or central power that is willing to devolve some form of autonomy to this new entity. To achieve this type of autonomy would require a military uprising which has been the status quo ante before the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) recently negotiated a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that defines the sharing of political and economic powers.
But this Framework Agreement is not a perfect document. It is wrought with inherent risks. If it is a roadmap to peace as the government panel sees it, then there are too many roadblocks ahead, some of which might seem insurmountable, either by legislation or pragmatic politics.
Splinter groups within the Islamic liberation movement like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have already vowed to continue their armed struggle for self-determination as a separate state. Even the old Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari has charged that the Framework Agreement was illegal because of the existing peace accord between the government and MNLF.
The indigenous peoples such as the Lumads, and the predominantly Roman Catholic communities in the new Bangsamoro state may not totally support the new entity because of fear of being subjected to the Sharia justice system, and naturally for their displacement and loss of property. Although the Framework Agreement makes it clear that only Muslims will be under Sharia jurisdiction.
Another relevant question is how this agreement achieved by the MILF will affect the other peace negotiations between the government and the communist insurgency group represented by the National Democratic Front (NDF). The negotiations have reached an impasse with the government being apparently disinterested to continue. But should there be a peace agreement with the NDF-led communist group, is it going to be similar with the MILF Bangsamoro deal? This might further heighten the fear of dismembering the Philippine territory as defined under the Constitution, thus create more worries of future Balkanization of the republic.
Under the Framework Agreement, the new Bangsamoro entity shall replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which makes it almost similar to the previous Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) entered between the Arroyo government and the MILF. In other words, the provinces, cities, municipalities, barangays and geographic areas within the ARMM territory shall be the constituent units of the Bangsamoro. The Supreme Court has struck this latter agreement as unconstitutional although the main objection to Arroyo’s peace initiative was the secrecy and lack of transparency in how the agreement was made. This led to some speculations that Arroyo was simply paying back the MILF and her Muslim supporters for her re-election as president.
Proposed Bangsamoro Core Territory. Courtesy of Keith Bacongco,Mindanews Graphics.
Click link to view Speech of President Aquino on the preliminary peace agreement
between the government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), 
While the new Bangsamoro nation under the Framework Agreement shall have a ministerial form (parliamentary) of government, its relationship with the central government is asymmetric. This means that the relationship between the two levels of government is not equal. Or expressed mathematically, Bangsamoro can have a relation with Manila, but Manila cannot have the same relation to Bangsamoro.
Who is Bangsamoro? Under the Framework Agreement, “Those who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands including Palawan, and their descendants whether of mixed or of full blood shall have the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro by ascription or self-ascription.”
The territorial breadth of the Bangsamoro entity and the definition of the Bangsamoro identity might fuel some form of controversy that would be difficult to untangle. Constitutional purists, for one, will naturally thumb down any scheme of dismembering the Philippine territory without going through the amendment process. They will view this as giving up territories which the country has earned from the time of independence from colonization.
This Constitution-based objection to the Bangsamoro territory, however, can be overcome by the new political modality between the new entity and the central government. Their relationship is asymmetric, which means that while Bangsamoro will be an autonomous entity, to the central government it is not an independent state. The distribution and sharing of powers confirm this type of relationship.
Under the Framework Agreement, the central government shall have reserved powers such as those bundled up and assigned to the national government like defence and external security, foreign policy, foreign trade unless those already devolved under the law to Bangsamoro, coinage and monetary policy, citizenship and naturalization and postal service.
On the other hand, Bangsamoro shall have exclusive powers like the establishment of the Sharia justice system for Muslim inhabitants. Other powers will be shared between the two levels of government.
In effect, there would be no diminution in central political powers. The central government is not diminished by devolution of some types of autonomy to the new Bangsamoro entity.
But the most contentious of all issues in the Framework Agreement is how the parties will agree to the sharing of the largely untapped wealth of Mindanao’s natural resources. Currently, ARMM has a 50 percent share in the proceeds of exploiting strategic minerals in the region. Under the new Bangsamoro entity, it will get a 75 percent share in wealth produced in the areas under its control, or 75 percent of revenues generated, leaving the central government a mere 25 percent. Under any percentage sharing scheme, disaster looms either way. It cannot also be discounted that the new Bangsamoro entity could just be dominated by the same set of local elites that will bend to the agenda of the ruling national elite and American multinational corporations which have economic interests to protect in Mindanao.
Arguably there is no need for a constitutional amendment to enshrine the new Bangsamoro entity as the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law could be considered part of enabling legislation in support of the constitutional provision for autonomous regions like the ARRM and the Cordilleras. Or on the other hand, the proposed Bangsamoro entity could just be a ruse to open up the Constitution in order to change its economic and patrimony provisions that would give equal rights to foreign companies to exploit our natural resources.
Congress, which has been overeager to convene a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution, and President Benigno Aquino III, who has been ambivalent to Charter Change, might have finally stumbled on the rationale for amending the Constitution. The Bangsamoro juridical entity as envisaged by the Framework Agreement might be the biggest casualty of the peace process.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The no-debate debate

If anything, the last U.S. presidential debate last Wednesday is a clear sign that the next debates between President Barack Obama and challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney, will end up just the same.
No surprises, no clear winner, and the public not any more informed to make their intelligent choice upon Election Day.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off three times in person ahead of the 2012
U.S. presidential election on Nov. 6. Click link to view "Presidential Debate 2012: Obama
Warns Against Voucher Programs,"  

As one political observer noted, “America doesn’t really have presidential debates.” The candidates are just making joint appearances, as if agreed on beforehand, for them to regurgitate tired talking points and lies. Instead of the debates being enlightening or even transformational, they are “staged-managed to satisfy the demands of power brokers with money and connections rather than the needs of democracy.”
The ultimate result of these presidential debates has long been fixed by the so-called bipartisan Commission on Presidential elections. For over a quarter of a century, this commission which relies on big corporations for funding will ensure that the debates work best for the interest of the major parties and also for the networks to boost their ratings.
Since Ralph Nader started to run for U.S. President, he had fought hard to have a place in the debates as the Green Party candidate but the organizers never backed down in preserving the status quo. No third-party candidates had ever won a spot in the debates, a sign that the organizers are more concerned with the partisan interests of the two major candidates rather than with the democratic interests of the voting public.
The current U.S. presidential debates are under pressure from reformers who want to open the presidential debates to make them more interesting and relevant.
For example, there are suggestions to let activists ask questions based on their knowledge and experience. Or allow moderators to challenge the candidates by asking follow-up questions and to encourage candidates to go at each other.
But the format of the debates limits the questions to the same ones that have been asked and answered a million times. Naturally, the candidates are expected to respond as coached and prepped by their handlers. With most of the moderators belonging to the same old club of white-media stalwarts, they are not expected to rock the boat or stray outside of what is usually agreed as the sphere of legitimate controversy.
A New York Times editorial summed up last Wednesday’s debate as follows:
“The Mitt Romney who appeared on the stage at the University of Denver seemed to be fleeing from the one who won the Republican nomination on a hard-right platform of tax cuts, budget slashing and indifference to the suffering of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. And Mr. Obama’s competitive edge from 2008 clearly dulled, as he missed repeated opportunities to challenge Mr. Romney on his falsehoods and turnabouts."
“Virtually every time Mr. Romney spoke, he misrepresented the platform on which he and Paul Ryan are actually running. The most prominent example, taking up the first half-hour of the debate, was on taxes. Mr. Romney claimed, against considerable evidence, that he had no intention of cutting taxes on the rich or enacting a tax cut that would increase the deficit.”
Viewers of the debate were bombarded with the hollowness of Mitt Romney’s arguments and left baffled by Obama’s unwillingness to expose it when he has the facts on his side. This unfortunate scenario is made worse with the timidity of the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, to jump in and challenge either candidate on the facts.
Do presidential debates really enrich the democratic process?
Hardly, says Scott Horton who calls this ritual of presidential debates “The Zero-Calorie Debate” in his article in Harper’s Magazine. He doesn’t see the candidates or the campaigns as the problem, but “the quality of questioning that came from the carefully-selected media questioners. The questions actually asked are remarkably predictable. By and large, the questioning operated to lower, not to raise, the caliber of the political debate.”
Last Wednesday’s debate shows how much disinterested Jim Lehrer was with his questioning. Instead of helping the viewers and the voters understand the candidates or their policies, Lehrer simply sat on helplessly while the candidates slugged it out with their recitation of tired talking points. No wonder many must have switched their television channel to a sports broadcast that was being aired at the same time following Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera in his quest for the triple crown in baseball.
There are many questions which should lie in the heart of political debates but have never been asked. An environment has been engendered in which scrutiny of presidential candidates has become superficial, and in which candidates can get away with so much lying and distortion of the facts. False or bogus claims are often made without shame or correction. Little actual debating is done on substantive issues that matter because the debates are packaged to resemble a television game show.
Poverty and pressing questions on energy and the environment aren’t the only subject candidates would likely gloss over in the debates.
Questions that are likely not to be asked during the debates are: “What will the candidates do to address the growing problem of more than 20 million people in America who have incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,000 for a family of three?” or “What will the candidate do as president about the growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?
As Scott Horton has observed: “Our political culture continues to avoid vital issues. Instead, we are treated to political tragicomedy.” These debates are impoverishing the entire political process, Horton adds.
In the Philippines, we have also held televised debates between presidential candidates in our attempt to copy almost everything American. But do these debates make Filipinos more informed about their choices? If the American experience is found to be distracting, how much more can seven or more candidates obfuscate the entire process by telling the viewers their version of lies and bogus claims?
Just to win, the biggest liar of them all usually takes the crown especially if the candidate is connected to powerful political clans and business corporations, or if he could bank on the political legacy of his parents, even if he has the reputation for doing nothing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A pestering relic

There was a Vicente Sotto in the Philippine Senate long before his namesake incumbent Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III rose to fame. Actually, they are related by blood. The former movie personality and now a staunch opponent of the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill pending in Congress is the grandson of the older Senator Vicente Sotto.
The older Senator Sotto was the main author of the Press Freedom Law (now known as the Sotto Law, Republic Act No. 53) which protects journalists from being compelled to name their news sources. Earlier in life, the older Sotto was a spirited and unwavering advocate of national independence from American rule and published the first newspaper in Cebu by a Philippine citizen. When the newspaper was suspended by the American military governor, it did not stop Senator Sotto from publishing another one for which he was later put to prison. Upon his release, he would publish another newspaper, and this time, he was found guilty of treason by the American colonial government. Even during his exile, the undaunted older Sotto would continue his fight for independence by publishing the Philippine Republic, an English-Spanish fortnightly based in Hong Kong, and later a weekly journal called The Independent.
One would think the grandson would follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestor. But Tito Sotto, the younger, took a different path. Admitting to CBS News that he was one of the two senators who inserted the online libel provision in the newly-passed Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, Senator Sotto believed it was necessary and it would not cause any additional harm.
Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III, outspoken opponent of the Reproductive Health Bill in
Congress and alleged to have inserted the online libel provisions in the newly enacted
Cybercrime Prevention Act. Click link
to view "Sotto: Plagiarism Not Crime in the Philippines."
His critics, however, say this wasn’t so. Sotto is suspected of having an axe to grind against bloggers and those who use Facebook or Twitter accounts to post critical comments against public officials. Before the much-ballyhooed anti-cybercrime law was passed, Sotto, who is also the Senate Majority Leader, made a privileged speech attacking the proposed RH Bill. In speaking against the bill, Sotto shared his intimate and personal experience with the dangers and side effects of birth control devices.
Sotto’s critics on the Internet pounced on him with accusations of plagiarism, that he copied portions of his speech from a U.S. blogger and from the speeches of the late U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy. Senator Sotto thought he was a victim of cyber-bullying by bloggers and Facebook and Twitter users who were taking advantage of the unregulated Internet in insulting and defaming his character. He claims that the libel clause in Cybercrime Prevention Act was not intended to abridge free speech, but only to protect ordinary people who are “victims of online attacks, character assassination and the like from people who do not observe the standards of journalism.”
Other than blood, the two Sottos of the Philippine Senate obviously have no kinship to each other. The older Sotto took a bolder and more principled position in favour of free speech while the younger opted restraint instead.
The younger Sotto did not realize the full implications of plagiarism, particularly to copyright infringements in cyberspace, such as copying the works of bloggers without their consent. Perhaps, Senator Sotto and the rest of the lawmakers who drafted the Cybercrime Prevention Act need to refresh themselves of the Budapest Convention, which the Council of Europe adopted in 2001. This Convention became the only binding international instrument designed specifically to combat cybercrime. It serves as the guideline for developing comprehensive national legislation against cybercrime and deals with crimes committed via the Internet and other computer networks, such as hacking, phishing, spamming, and more particularly with infringements of copyright, computer-related fraud, child pornography and violations of network security.
Recognizing the growing menace of cybercrimes, the Budapest Convention is also being used in fostering international cooperation among its members in the apprehension of computer crimes. It has been supplemented by an Additional Protocol in 2003 which makes any publication of racist and xenophobic propaganda through computer networks a criminal offence. One of the reasons in adopting the Additional Protocol was to recognize freedom of expression as a basic condition for the development of every human being and as a foundation of democratic society. It wasn’t meant to criminalize online or Internet libel. After all, its members and other non-member countries (like Canada, Japan, the United States and the Republic of South Africa) that have signed up to the convention are all liberal democracies where libel is no longer a criminal offence. In these states, libel or defamation is a civil wrong that can be remedied by damages, not by imprisonment.

In a related event, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has also called on the Philippine government to decriminalize libel in the case of a Davao City radio journalist who was convicted of libel in 2007 under the country’s Revised Penal Code and was imprisoned for two years. According to the UN committee decision, the Philippines violated article 19 on the right to freedom of expression and opinion of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The existing Philippine libel law as contained in the Revised Penal Code has its roots from the Sedition Act of 1901 that punished those who would advocate Philippine independence and free speech during the American colonial period.
Instead of decriminalizing libel and following the practice in advanced democratic states of treating defamatory libel as a civil matter, the online libel criminal provisions in the Cybercrime Prevention Act have even strengthened libel law.
It is worse now because a person can be prosecuted for libel under the Revised Penal Code and libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which is contrary to the 1987 Constitution that assures protection against double jeopardy. According to College of Law Professor Harry Roque of the University of the Philippines, the new anti-cyber crime law even increases the penalty of cyber-libel one degree higher than ordinary libel.
Professor Roque, who is also a blogger, wrote in
“This means that electronic libel is now punished with imprisonment from 6 years and one day to up to 12 years, while those convicted for ordinary libel under the RPC are subject to imprisonment only from 6 months and one day to four years and two months. And because parole, a means by which a convict may be spared from actual imprisonment may be granted only to those sentenced to serve a prison term for no more than 6 months and one day, anyone convicted for cyber libel will inevitably serve a prison term.”
The inclusion of online libel in the new anti-cybercrime law has diminished the objectives of the Budapest Convention, the template for anti-cybercrime legislation, and made a mockery of the Philippines’ accession to international instruments that recognize the fundamental right of individuals to freedom of expression.
Various individuals and groups are now challenging the constitutionality of the new Cybercrime Prevention Act. In addition to the “chilling effect” of the new law on free speech, opposition to the anti-cybercrime law also raises violation of the sanctions against double jeopardy and the right against unreasonable searches and seizure insofar as it gives unwarranted authority to the police and the National Bureau of Investigation to engage in wholesale surveillance of all cellular, data, mobile, internet and computer communications.
Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human rights Watch said: “Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader – including government officials – bring a libel charge. Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.”
In fact, the civil court is the best recourse for Senator Tito Sotto if he felt aggrieved or unnecessarily harassed by the deluge of criticisms against him in the blogosphere. There are appropriate and adequate civil remedies available against defamatory libel, including monetary damages. Perhaps, it is also about high time for the Philippine government to decriminalize libel as part of its maturation as a democratic society that allows its members to fully exercise their right of free speech without the threat of criminal prosecution. The time is now to get rid of this worthless relic from the past.