September 2012

Explanation required, Mr. President

My position regarding what has become Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, has not changed since I first went over the Senate version (Senate Bill No. 2796) several months ago: I maintain that it is a deeply flawed law that will not be able to properly address the problems it was ostensibly designed for, including, but not limited to, libel, cyber-bullying, and cyber-prostitution. Of course, back in February, I was content merely to air my anxiety, because I was fairly optimistic that the ill-conceived bill would not prosper, such optimism—or maybe I should say, with the benefit of hindsight, naïveté—being largely rooted in my reluctance to entertain the notion that the denizens of officialdom would act, to use a time-honored phrase, like a bunch of drooling incompetents.

It seems opportune to raise yet again the important question of whether our leaders understand what goes on in cyberspace, even as they attempt to engage the wired middle and upper classes—certainly not the general public, in view of extant data on the level of Internet penetration, not to mention access to electricity, in the country—by establishing and using all sorts of online properties, such as web sites, blogs, and social media accounts.

The massive outcry against the anti-cybercrime law, which, as of this writing, includes four separate petitions filed with the Supreme Court by various groups, has found the apparatchiks of this administration scrambling to defend the decision of President Benigno S. Aquino III to sign it into law. For instance, at a press briefing yesterday, September 27, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, urging critics to wait for the pertinent Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), said that “freedom of expression is not absolute”, and that the law “[attaches] responsibilities in cyberspace”—pronouncements that are not without merit and would be difficult to disagree with, but tend to come across as incongruous at the very least, considering that Lacierda, along with other Palace functionaries, has been known to happily heckle political opponents—transport strike organizers and participants, say, or former Chief Justice Renato Corona—using his Twitter account, and could more convincingly serve as an exemplar of irresponsible online behavior than the opposite, especially because, by virtue of his position, he is supposed to speak with the voice of the Chief Executive.

Similarly irresponsible, as well as disingenuous, are the arguments advanced by Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, who, in response to blogger Jon Limjap’s tweet that the law, presumably on account of its provisions on libel, could be used “to silence political critics online“, replied that Limjap’s “sweeping” statement “ignores the [C]onstitution and its guarantees“, adding that the Act contained nothing that “any columnist hasn’t had to live with since time immemorial“. I would have thought that the following patently obvious things need not be said: first, the Constitution will not prevent—and in fact allows—the litigious from threatening to file or actually filing lawsuits, as Quezon himself knows from experience, whatever the courts eventually decide; second, the majority of people online are not columnists and have had no journalistic training, though pretenders do proliferate; and third, just because a particular state of affairs has persisted “since time immemorial” is not a reason to maintain said state.

None of the foregoing is to advocate that a kind of exceptionalism be observed with reference to cyberspace and the various activities that go on it it, as The Philippine Star columnist Federico J. Pascual seems to believe, rather strangely, of those against the anti-cybercrime law. I do think that there is much that deserves to be regulated online, although that requires a separate discussion. The process of law-making, however, ought to be undertaken with intelligence, sensitivity, and no small amount of caution. Given the disturbing implications of the Act in its current form, a severe shortage of precisely the aforementioned qualities may well be afflicting Congress and Malacañang, and now time, energy, and taxpayer money must be spent, if not squandered, in the fight against a law that, as Cocoy Dayao has pointed out, could have been crafted “far, far better“, and would therefore have been a more efficient use of national resources.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent report, Aquino did not exercise his veto power over the Act because the office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. prepared a legal memorandum recommending the law for signing. Perhaps Ochoa or Aquino might be prevailed upon to release the contents of this memorandum to the public,  in order that the rationale behind the approval of the Act by a President who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to freedom and transparency might be understood by the people it will affect—the so-called bosses in whose interests he claims to work, and to whom he now owes a clear explanation.

Beyond the Pro-Life v Pro-Choice Debate

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC in the United States publishes an annual report on the birth rates of US teenagers. The agency whose corporate mission is “saving lives and protecting people” states, “childbearing by teenagers continues to be a matter of public concern because of the elevated health risks for teen mothers and their infants.”

In its most recent report dated April 2012, the Center finds that the birth rate recorded for 2010 hit “a historic low” for all ages and ethnic groups. At 34.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, the figure for 2010 was down 9 percent from the previous year, 44 percent from the recent peak of 61.8 in 1991, and 64 percent beneath the all-time high of 96.3 recorded in 1957.

The figure below taken from their website tells the story. Birth rates across two age groups, legal aged 18-19 year olds and under-aged 15-17 year olds have been on the decline following the post-war baby boom era of the 1950s. The 2010 results should provide comfort to those worried about the “Juno effect” named after the movie of the same title which was said to have presented teenage pregnancy in a positive light.

The picture would seem even more encouraging if we viewed teenage birth rates as a proxy indicator for teenage pregnancy which is harder to measure given the number of unreported abortions. Religious education makes abortion unpopular among conservative circles, and movies like Juno have made it less so among liberally minded ones. If we assume that abortion rates among teens have remained steady or even declined in this time, then it appears teens are taking “proper precautions” to avoid falling pregnant.

When split by ethnicity, the story stays consistent albeit somewhat dispersed. We can see from the next figure also taken from the CDC website that from 1991 to 2010 black and Latino teens tended to have higher birth rates when compared to non-Hispanic whites and Asian teens (twice that of the former and five times that of the latter) even though these birth rates have been declining across all ethnic groups for the last twenty years.

What is startling from the chart is that non-Hispanic blacks now have a lower birth rate among teens compared to Latinos having seen their rate fall from 118.2 per 1,000 women in 1991 to 51.5 in 2010. Latino teens on the other hand, saw their birth rates fall from 104.6 to 55.7 in the same period. Among whites it went from 43.3 to 23.5 and among Asians and Pacific islanders it went from 27.3 to 10.9. Across the board, the rate went from 61.8 to 34.4 although in the Southern states upwards of 40 births per 1,000 women is observed compared to the Northern ones which have less than that figure. Without the decline, the CDC estimates that there would have been 3.4 million more births among teenagers during the period from 1991 to 2010.

We can tell from US census and labor force survey data that Hispanics and blacks generally have higher poverty and unemployment levels compared to non-Hispanic whites and Asians. In addition, Southern states which tend to have a higher concentration of Latinos tend to also have lower incomes on average per head of population.

If you correlate these figures, what you will probably find is that teenage birth rates (and by extension teenage fertility) are significantly higher among those ethnic, regional and income groups that are generally regarded as being socially disadvantaged. We can speculate as to the reasons for this of course—from the lack of education, economic opportunities, access to reproductive health services, the influence of media, and so on. Whatever the reason, these facts remain.

When we look across countries, the same facts would appear to be incontrovertible. The following chart was taken from the World Bank Development Indicators and generated through Google’s public data explorer. It shows teenage birth rates from different regions in the world as well as the Philippines. We find a similar pattern as per the American case.

The adolescent fertility rate across the globe has fallen in recent years from 67.5 births per 1,000 women in 1997 to 53.4 in 2010. Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America have the highest birth rates among young women at 108, 73 and 72 in that order. The Middle East (37), North America (31), Eurasia (27), and East Asia and the Pacific (19) have lower than world average birth rates. The Philippines bucked the world trend because it saw its teenage fertility rise from 49 in 1997 to 54 in 2007 before declining back down to 49.5 in 2010.

Compared to where it is situated on the map, the country has nearly 2.5 times the teenage fertility rate of its East Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts. Perhaps this would lend some credence to the notion that Filipinos are the “blacks of Asia” as their teenage pregnancies are comparable to African and Latino Americans who I have already said trail non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans in reducing adolescent fertility.

Beyond Just Facts and Figures

I raise this point because in the highly polarized debate over reproductive health, the one thing I believe that opposing parties to the discussion seem to agree on is that teenage fertility is something that is to be avoided. Catholic Filipinos who are by inclination “pro-life” would wish for their daughters to delay having children until after they complete their education.

I recently attended a baptism/wedding celebrated by a tightly-knit group of devout Catholic families here in Australia. The bride and groom had in fact met at a Youth for Christ camp; the parents on both sides were from Couples for Christ. During the ceremony, I noticed how well this community supported the bride/mom and groom/dad both aged 18 with their prayers and “unconditional love”.

There were not a few tears shed by both family and friends when the traditional speeches were delivered at the reception. I began to get an insight into the way the community viewed what had happened. Although, they celebrated the coming into the world of a new person, the word “mistake” was bandied about in reference to the pregnancy. In fact I learnt that when the groom’s father initially spoke to the bride’s father to relate the news of the pregnancy, the word “atraso” (arrears) was used in describing it.

This is typical of the way I believe average Filipinos would deal with such a situation. Some in the community that I got a chance to speak with talked of the need to engage in responsible parenthood and, yes, make use of reproductive health services. Some blamed the lack of awareness-raising in the Catholic school in which the bride was enrolled. Suffice it to say, there is a greater openness towards the issue in Australia. In fact one Australian priest advised the parents of the teen couple not to force a quick marriage prior to the birth of the child.

What this tells me regarding the debate over reproductive health is that while the mouth-pieces for religious conservatism in the Philippines oppose any form of reproductive health education and services in schools and state-sponsored health clinics, their followers by and large are probably much more pragmatic and sensible. The problem of course is that they cannot come out, and neither can their politicians, to actually support this in public.

While an angry minority within the religious Catholic Filipino community will denounce the reproductive health bill for what they see is the alleged promotion of abortion and abortifacients that it embodies, I believe most of their adherents actually are on the side of a more balanced approach to the issue. The notion that Filipinos are either pro-life or pro-choice is really a misguided way to frame this debate.

Most Filipinos subscribe to the notion that to have a child as a teenager presents many disadvantages, including the inability to complete an education and get ahead in life. While most if not all would welcome newborns into this world, they also recognize that this comes with great responsibility. Yet, the radicals on both sides have managed to inflame the debate. The fact that there are risks associated with pregnancies among younger and older women and that the proper precaution has to be taken to manage these risks has been obscured by the name-calling and demonizing.

Our religious and political leaders have to join hands and recognize that the will of the majority of Filipinos has to be heeded, and a majority of them when surveyed express support for the enactment of laws consistent with promoting reproductive health. By restricting their view of the issue according to a very narrow lens, the pro-life and pro-choice camps are not only doing a disservice to their countrymen, they are sewing a lot of division in the community, creating a fissure that would not otherwise exist.

Harry Roque’s way

“There comes a point where making a point is pointless. And reckless.” – Philip Gilmore 

UP banned the screening of the “Innocence of Muslims” to ensure the safety and security of everyone on its campus. But Harry Roque, human rights lawyer and constitutional law lecturer at the UP, would have none of it. He defied the ban and screened the movie for his class, as a teaching tool on the freedom of expression.

Damn the torpedoes! Or as he put it, “As an academic, as a lawyer, I cannot allow rights to be infringed upon. I am in perfect discharge of my duties as a law professor and I’m willing to take whatever consequence.” Eh damn the torpedoes nga!

Alright, so he wanted to make a point. About the freedom of self-expression. But there’s a point where making a point is pointless. And reckless.

Roque already knew Muslims in over 20 countries reacted violently to that movie why did he have to risk riling local Muslims who have displayed admirable restraint so far? Was he testing the limits of their tolerance? 

So what if he had no intention of adding to the Muslims’ rage, that he was only standing up for the freedom of expression. The purity of his intentions do not matter because there is an equally important issue that cannot be ignored. There is an offended party involved and he is very angry. He cannot be put aside, expected to hold his anger in check, while a professor uses a movie that slanders his religion to make a point about freedom of expression.

The thing is Roque won’t even concede that the movie is offensive to Muslims. The first sentence of his Inquirer column last Friday – Free Expression and mob rule – was, “An allegedly anti-Islam trailer has reopened the debate on where the limits to freedom of expression should be.”  Allegedly anti-Islam? In the next sentence he said the movie depicts Mohammad as “a fraud, a womanizer, and a pedophile”. What further proof does he need to say unequivocally that the movie is anti-Islam?

Roque then warned that banning ‘expression that prods members of a religious group to violent reaction is a “slippery slope” as far as freedom of expression is concerned.’ He went on to prescribe, “the remedy in a democratic society is not to ban such a film, but for Muslims to prove in both word and deed that the affront is apparent and real. Certainly, the resort to mob rule is not the means to prevail in the free marketplace of ideas.” 

Wait a minute. Let’s analyze his prescription.

The Muslims have to prove in both word and deed that the affront is apparent and real? They torched an embassy and killed an ambassador, is that proof enough that the affront was apparent and real to them? Or was Roque saying the Muslims must first prove that Muhammad was not a fraud, a womanizer, and a pedophile before they can rampage? Or was he in fact saying if I call your mother a whore the proper response is to prove I’m wrong and not to kick my teeth in?

Certainly, the resort to mob rule is not the means to prevail in the free marketplace of ideas. At least for those who believe that a free marketplace of ideas exists. But certainly as well there are people who believe that mob rule is the only way they can liberate themselves from the free marketplace of ideas dominated by what some American conservatives proudly refer to as “the Judeo-Christian moral code”. 

They have their moral codes, we have ours. What many fail to understand is that the world became interconnected faster than people’s capacity for mutual adjustment. So the first instinct is to impose one’s self on the other in order to maintain one’s comfort zone. It takes a while to learn that the only way to have peace is to co-exist and not to impose peace. 

We are still in the culture clash stage. And so when one does something that offends the other, intentionally or not, one cannot presume the other will respond in a like manner, as if only a reversal of roles were involved.

More importantly, you cannot, like Harry Roque thinks you can, dictate to the other how he should respond. He will respond in the way he responds. That’s it. And you better be prepared to live with it because that will be it until such time as we all get to know each other well enough to agree on a code of conduct.

For example, among Muslims freedom of expression does not extend to criticizing their faith. You cannot blaspheme or commit heresy and expect to get away with a slap on the wrist. That’s the way it is with them. It was also that way for Catholics and christians, for many centuries. So if it was okay for us then why is it not okay for them now? There is no right or wrong involved here, we have secularized, they have not. Who has the moral authority to say we are right and they are wrong?

The secularized go to war over politics, the religious go to war over faith. Asking who between the two is better is like saying that the cannibal who eats with a knife and fork is better than the cannibal who eats with his hands.

Roque could have screened the movie in a rented auditorium or at home and it would have been only him and his invited guests to face “whatever consequences” they were willing to face. They would still be defending a right but they would be doing it without involving those who really don’t give a rat’s ass about defending a bigot’s right to lie about another religion. 

There are people who believe that freedom of speech is better served by condemning bigotry and lies than by standing up for the right of bigots and liars to mouth off. They will defend the right to free speech in their own way just as Roque will in his own way. Unfortunately, Roque’s way put everyone in the UP campus at risk. Nang dadamay pa and that is a no-no in our culture.

The thing is until we can all agree on what democracy is and the extent and limits on freedom of expression, we must settle our differences in places where there is minimal risk of collateral damage. That’s what Roque failed to grasp, believing as he did that his idea of freedom of expression is the one size that fits all, with no need for personalized fittings. He took his fight to the UP campus, a “civilian” zone, instead of a battlefield where only combatants would face-off.

Anyway, after the screening, Harry Roque proclaimed, “Now that we have seen it, we can confidently say it is trash.”

Christ Almighty or Alahu Akbar, does one have to taste-test every foul-smelling mound on the sidewalk before he can confidently say “It is dog shit!”? 

Pain beyond forgetting

There was, last week, a revived discussion on the jewelry of Imelda Marcos. Sell them? Put them on exhibit? The debate comes up every year around the time of the anniversary of martial law. It distracts from the real sin of martial law, that throughout its 14 year span torture, disappearances, and summary executions became a part of life for thousands of our people, for both perpetrators and victims.

Sure unbridled corruption during the martial law years caused serious economic hardship to our people but, at the end of the day, to use that overused cliché, it involved only money. Loss of money and economic opportunity can be regained, the scars healed. We are a strong people who have not allowed economic setbacks to destroy our spirit. Martial law and several corrupt administrations after that may have slowed us down but look at where we are now. Proof that when it comes to material losses, we can move on and make up for them through hard work, intelligence, and, of course, a little bit of luck.

What we cannot move away from without any soul searching is the loss of our humanity. “Pain beyond forgetting”, as Interaksyon calls those years of dehumanization, must be dealt with squarely. I recommend that you visit the Interaksyon site and listen to the testimony of victims. Unfortunately it does not have any testimony from the perpetrators. Their side of the story is vital because we have to understand how and why the guardians of peace and security, the enforcers of law and order, idealistic graduates of the Philippine Military Academy and their superiors, turned into monsters who inflicted unimaginable acts of cruelty on their fellow human beings. We have to hear from them why and how they allowed themselves to become what they became. We have to know and, more importantly, they have to know because not knowing is a sure guarantee that it will happen again.

It’s been twenty six years since the rule of law was reestablished in this country and we still have not heard an explanation for what happened, never mind that no one was held accountable. That’s why after all these years since democracy and the rule of law was restored torture, disappearances, and summary executions still take place. Closure, I hate that word but it’s the only word I can think of, has not been reached. We all know how they reached it in South Africa. Through a truth commission where the perpetrators and their victims faced each other and came to an understanding of what they went through. The damage to the perpetrator is just as great if not more so than to the victim. The victim suffered indescribable physical and emotional horrors but the perpetrator lost his humanity and his soul. Can he ever regain it without admitting fault and expressing remorse?

In addition to understanding the dehumanization we went through, we need a museum that will serve as a reminder that man can turn into a monster with the stroke of a pen. The horrors of those years live on in the memories of both victims and perpetrators. Those horrors should die with them, never to see the light of day ever again.