A Call to the Filipino People to be Prophets

June 21, 2020
A Statement on the Importance of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press for the Common Good
While our country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also witnessing a crisis in governance and democracy, and the slow erosion of a general commitment to the common good. The recent urgency for the Anti-Terrorism Act has raised concerns about the government’s use of the law to quell those who dare to question them. The ruling that found Maria Ressa and Rey Santos, Jr. guilty of cyberlibel and the stalling of the ABS-CBN franchise renewal are further steps in the erosion of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. These cases illustrate how technicalities of the law can be weaponized to stifle investigative journalism that is necessary to bring to light shadowy, unjust, and illegal unlawful actions. These are two separate but connected cases that highlight the deeper concern for citizens to fulfill their democratic responsibilities by holding accountable those in power.

We acknowledge and endorse the reflections addressing the implications of the verdict against Maria Ressa and Rey Santos, Jr. from our colleagues in the Departments of Communication and Political Science. As theologians, we urge the Filipino people to reflect on the integral role that freedom of speech and the press play in promoting the common good and in safeguarding human dignity and human rights. Freedom of the press is essential in providing people the “right to freedom in investigating the truth, and—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication” (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris 12). Freedom of the press is built on the foundation of freedom of speech, which must also be protected.
The church today sees freedom of speech and freedom of the press through the lens of human dignity and human rights, the central tenet upon which Catholic social thought develops. The Catholic church acknowledges the importance of due process in ensuring that human dignity and human rights, grounded in being made in the image and likeness of God, are safeguarded. Pope Francis said, “One of the first measures that dictatorships take is to eliminate the freedom of the press or to ‘mask’ it, to not leave the press free” (Francis, “Address to Members of the Italian Foreign Press Association”). When freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are in danger, everyone’s dignity and human rights are also in danger.
The technicalities used to weaponize the law in the current ruling against Maria Ressa and Rey Santos, Jr. cannot be separated from the dangers created by the hastily crafted and poorly articulated Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. The haste with which the legislation was passed in the midst of a health crisis is already questionable, but its failure to ensure human rights including freedom of speech is a cause for alarm. We must remember that “however extensive and far-reaching the influence of the State..., it must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action. It must rather augment his freedom, while effectively guaranteeing the protection of everyone’s essential, personal rights” (John XXIII, Mater et Magistra 55). As many experts have pointed out, the ambiguous definitions of “terror,” “terrorist,” and “risk of safety” can be utilized to stifle freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech, however, is a cornerstone of the prophetic tradition. In the face of an oppressive, dominant structure or system that cannot tolerate dissent or criticism, prophets, led by the Spirit of Truth, dare to speak the word of God giving voice to the voiceless, denouncing evils in their midst, and demanding the transformation of society. Speaking out against injustices and sharing in the pathos of the God who suffers with the people is a difficult but necessary task. This task is ultimately aimed at energizing people to imagine a better world and to work for a more just and more equitable reality, rooted in hope in the concrete and real newness that the Holy Spirit brings to our shared, unfolding story.
We therefore invite people to reflect on their prophetic role. Our voices join the long line of our prophetic tradition from Moses standing up against Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites, Deborah taking the initiative to end people's suffering at the hands of a powerful foreign leader, Nathan confronting David with the death of Uriah, Isaiah denouncing the corrupt leaders of Israel and Judah, Jeremiah rebuking those who said there was peace while they treated the people’s wound carelessly, Mary singing of God scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, and filling the hungry with good things, John the Baptist critiquing Herod, Jesus overturning the tables at the temple, criticizing laws that are harmful to the poor and empowering people to hope, St. John Chrysostom chastising the rich for ignoring the poor, Domingo de Salazar for defending the freedom of choice of the indigenous population against the Spanish colonial government, and St. Oscar Romero challenging the military dictatorship. As Romero proclaimed: “In the name of the church I want to support what is good, applaud it, encourage it, console the victims of atrocities, of injustices, and also with courage disclose the atrocities, the tortures, the disappearances of prisoners, the social injustice. This is not engaging in politics; this is building up the church and carrying out the church’s duty as imposed by the church’s identity.” (St. Oscar Romero’s homily, 10 Sept 1978).
We urge people to hold the line and advocate for the protection of free speech and freedom of the press. We must continue to hold the government accountable and advocate for transparency. The Citizen’s Budget Tracker has been tracking government expenditures during the pandemic, citizens have generated funds to bail out protesters, many have reached out to their representatives to voice their concerns, and many have participated safely in peaceful protests. But we must not stop there. We must speak louder and make ourselves heard. We further call on the people to speak out against human rights abuses that are still happening in our local communities - to protest against these injustices and hold those in power accountable. We remember that “the Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition” (Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 259). It is not a time for fear, but a time to do one’s part for the common good: we call on Filipinos to remain vigilant and courageous in continuing to speak truth to power.
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
                                                                                                                                       - St. Oscar Romero

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.