Abigail Valte

Why Internet libel exists on the MCPIF

There is an ongoing debate on rights and freedom of speech and expression in the Internet age. For the Philippines, it began with the CyberCrime Prevention Act of 2012, with the inclusion of Online Libel provisions. It continued with the petitions before the Supreme Court. It goes on today with Nancy Binay’s e-violence bill, and the Santiago-Conjungco Magna Carta on Philippine Internet Freedom (MCPIF).

The President’s argument in the inclusion of online libel in the Cybercrime Prevention Act is sound. We have rights, but it shouldn’t be abused. That’s not what’s wrong with the Cybercrime law. What’s wrong about it is how it goes about it.

The same tone exists with Nancy Binay’s e-violence bill. It seeks to prevent electronic attacks. The Binay argument is based on what the senator experienced during the campaign. Never mind that the bill she wishes to file doesn’t actually protect her. Never mind that its inclusion into the Violence Against Women and Children, muddles VAWC. Never mind that e-violence goes about solving the purported protection for women, in the same way the cybercrime law does. To put it simply, a misnomer.

Women versus Men Facebook

A meme, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. A meme is a shortening of the Greek word, mimeme, and the word meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins. And an Internet meme is of course speech, and expression spreading from social networks, in email, as hashtags, video, photos, and so on. Even as viral marketing. It was meant to be shared. Meant to be viewed. Memes have been in existence since the dawn of the Internet.

Internet meme in the political context has taken over what political cartoons used to be. Public figures and public personas are the favorite targets of meme. President Aquino is a target. And his successor would be too. Just ask many Internet sites, and Facebook pages that love to attack the president.

Sometimes the meme is totally baseless, intellectually dishonest and at times, propaganda and opinion. The deputy press secretary, Abigail Valte, for example has been a victim of meme attacks. Her face, embedded with words she didn’t actually say. Perhaps, it is the cognitive bias built by an echo chamber that exist only to validate their world view.

During the 2013 Senatorial campaign, Nancy Binay has been a victim of memes. A favorite target— partly because she refused to engaged the online world, and partly because the online community is hardly her demographic. And so, apparently her ego bruised by the recent campaign.

President Aquino, Nancy Binay and Abigail Valte share the same problem. They are publicly attacked. Now, it can be argued that all three are public figures. Do they “deserve” it? Whether the attacks had basis or not, is beside the point. Every public figure should be ready to have their reputations and image disfigured because we live in a democracy that doesn’t place unnecessary demand of intelligence to be heard. So the bar of libel and the bar of tolerance ought to be set higher than the ordinary citizen. It can be argued that as public officials ought to have thicker hides. it can also— and rightly argued— that sometimes public opinion can take it a bit far, and below the belt.

Would an amendment on Violence against women help protect Deputy Press Secretary Valte or Senator Nancy Binay? The quick answer is: No because the matter is not a domestic issue because the Violence against women and children is focused on domestic violence so the proposed e-violence bill doesn’t work for them. What’s more, the leveling of playing field that is the Internet doesn’t give any sex more power or less power on the Internet. While it is true, that women are far more easy targets in the real world, on a purely statistic basis, “there are 47% male users and 53% female Facebook users in Philippines, compared to 49% and 51% in United Kingdom and 49% and 51% in France“.

On the one hand, the President, Atty. Valte and Senator Binay in a democracy, while public figures ought to have some protection from below the belt attacks. Should this be the case or by the very nature of their position, having the same “rights”, would be unduly be biased to them? Certainly, like the common person they have the right to block, report as spam, unfollow, and unfriend. Ordinary people have them when Facebook wars happen; when Twitter clashes occur. There are blocks, report as spam, and unfollows and unfriending, for quick resolution. But even in a free press that our democracy affords, we do have libel to set the rules.

Shouldn’t that be some sort of basis?

What happens then?

That said, let us bring the discussion down to earth. What happens then to the likes of a school kid, being cyberbullied? What happens when kids use their freedom of speech to raise an opinion against their school or teacher? What happens if those attacks are nothing more than baseless, or malicious? Shouldn’t there be a mechanism for relief? For justice?

That was the whole argument for libel in the cybercrime law. How does one protect one’s self from attack. Of course it forgets that this must be balanced with the right of the other party to speak and right to freedom of expression. So there is that fragile balancing act. It goes back to the concept of justice.

Who decides?

Chris Lao argues he was a victim of cyberbullying. Ridiculed and embarrassed for the whole world to see. It can be argued, he got what he deserved. It can be argued that that in itself is too much. If I ridiculed him on Facebook, does he have a right to have it deleted. Who has that right? Facebook? Me? If either Facebook or I refuse to do so on the ground that it violates my freedom of speech, and expression, who does Lao turn to? The courts? If the barrier for justice is too high— how can one in Chris Lao’s position expect justice? Is it the DOJ who should do this? The local barangay? Shouldn’t questions on justice be settled by the court?

Hitler is constantly being ridiculed on the Internet. It is one of the world’s more famous meme. Is it LOL, or cyberbullying?

When is a meme become cyberbullying? When does a meme become hate speech? When is it libel?

MCPIF on freedom of expression and speech

Section 52 of the proposed Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom is on Internet libel, Hate speech, Child Pornography, and others.

The MCPIF defines Internet libel as “a public and malicious expression tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead, made on the Internet or on public networks.” It says that “Malice as an essential element of internet libel. – Internet libel shall not lie if malice or intent to injure is not present.” It goes on to say that there should be positive identification of the subject.

What’s more, Section 52 makes sure that truth is a defense (it is presently not a defense in the Philippines). “Internet libel shall not lie if the content of the expression is proven to be true, or if the expression is made on the basis of published reports presumed to be true, or if the content is intended to be humorous or satirical in nature, except if the content has been adjudged as unlawful or offensive in nature in accordance with existing jurisprudence.”

This pretty much covers people who are attacked by an ex, or a spouse on the Internet. You can have protection.

Furthermore, the MCPIF talks about Internet hate speech. the MCPIF defines hate speech as “a public, and malicious expression calling for the commission of illegal acts on an entire class of persons, a reasonably broad section thereof, or a person belonging to such a class, based on gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, or affiliation, political belief or affiliation, ethnic or regional affiliation, citizenship, or nationality made on the Internet or on public networks.”

So calling for the death of “all gays”, is a crime. Calling to beat up Muslims is a crime. Calling for the kidnapping of Catholics is a crime.

Section 52 is even more comprehensive in attacking child pornography, prostitution and trafficking on the Internet. It calls for an amendment of the existing Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 to reflect the times.

The President is on record saying that freedom and responsibility are important in our society. Which was why he backed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

Interaksyon quotes the President: “I do not agree that the provision on online libel should be removed. Whatever the format is, if it is libelous, then there should be some form of redress available to the victims.”

Joe America got it right. The MCPIF is about “freedom and responsibility first before control and restriction”.

The MCPIF includes Internet libel, but balanced on such “archaic ideas” like Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Expression. If a victim comes out saying, he needs a redress of grievances there are fair avenues for him or her to take on. Section 52 isn’t overreaching. It isn’t about control and repression. It is about Fairness and Equality. So Internet libel can be done for all. This is just one of the reasons why the MCPIF starts off with Rights and that antiquated piece of paper called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as basis. It is indeed high time we return the pendulum towards freedom and responsibility first, before control and restriction.

Forget Paris

Sex and politics have been front and center in recent days.

Three controversial events have brought sex and politics to the forefront of the news recently. First, the installation of artist Mideo Cruz of a crucifix and a penis drew the ire of the Catholic faithful, art patron Imelda Marcos and the president himself. Congressmen and Senators have opportunistically gotten on the bandwagon breathing fire into the debating embers of our society.

Second, the inclusion of the RH now RP Bill on reproductive health and responsible parenthood by the president along with a dozen other bills in his proposed legislative agenda for Congress to consider. His willingness to work in a bi-partisan way with the sponsors of the bill and with the clergy is a mark of true statesmanship.

Third, the faux pas committed by a reputable news agency in sewing confusion over whether Hollywood celebrity and hotel heiress Paris Hilton would meet with PNoy during her visit to the Philippines gained much oxygen when Presidential Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte deemed it necessary to deny such reports via Twitter.

As the title of this piece suggests, this is all about the third event.

After all the serious debates and theological arguments surrounding art and religion or sex and religion, the light-hearted controversy of such “girly goss” is probably a very welcome distraction. The timing of it could not have been better planned in my opinion. I am not suggesting that it was (planned), but I sense a certain tendency among palace officials to boost the president’s “macho image” every chance they get at times.

Fanning speculation

Remember the photo released of him and a lady having a lively night on the town with some of his communications people in the background? This came after the president had been linked to an image consultant within his own team. The porsche incident also portrayed the president as an avid motoring enthusiast.

This of course back-fired, but initially the president did not mind telling the press that the sportscar brought a large smile to his face. Similarly, the president’s fondness with guns caught some attention, and then back-fired on him (no pun intended) when his shooting gallery buddies whom he had appointed to sensitive posts got caught up in some unflattering situations.

I also recall reading an article a while back (but can’t find the link right now) in which Budget Sec Butch Abad admitted to feeding the press stories about PNoy’s supposed links to certain female celebrities during the election season. This was a bid on his part to boost the president’s own status among voters. Abad was then a ranking member of the president’s campaign team.

In a country where tobacco chomping generals, philandering husbands and strict authoritarians are considered top dog, it wouldn’t hurt to project the image of a swinging bachelor this time around…or would it? I think it sometimes runs counter to the other messages that the palace wants to send. What made PNoy so appealing to the electorate was that his persona gave a strong contrast to the often flambuoyant or charismatic character of other prominent leaders.

He was in effect, in a world full of Pepsis and Cokes, the “uncola”. His simple, mild manner contrasted with the extravagant wining and dining of his predecessor. He was patterned after his mum, a president who rode the same car when she first strode into the palace and when she stepped down from it. His geeky, balding and awkward demeanor were just the sort of antidote the country needed at the time when the field was full of bombastic individuals with sexy dancers and starlets in tow.

It is quite understandable though that given our country’s fascination with Hollywood that the media advisers surrounding him would want to engage with that side of our culture. After all, most people tune out when conversations turn to politics, religion or the economy. It is also quite understandable for the president to want to have a social life despite the heavy demands of his job (or even because of it).

Alpha males and eunuchs

This could all be considered a natural consequence of taking the reins. A study found that certain candidates (and their supporters) seem to experience a sudden boost of testosterone after winning a contest. Behavioral and evolutionary scientists link this to the pattern among animals where males fight over the right to spread their seed among the females in the pack. The rise in testosterone is perhaps a biological response in anticipation of the reproductive demands that come with being alpha male.

So perhaps, the country with its adherence to macho, feudal and primeval culture has not evolved all that much from this primitive state? Perhaps.

But there is one reason why I believe we need to celebrate the “single-blessedness” of the president and some of his men. In his most recent book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama describes how the Catholic Church’s insistence on priestly celibacy gave European societies an edge in developing the rule of law and how it was vital in the battle against corruption and rent-seeking within the church.

In societies at the lower wrung of political development, kinship is the primary criterion for conferring wealth, status and power. Fukuyama points out the role of celibacy in shielding the state from the patrimonialism and nepotism of tribal clans. From the imperial eunuchs under the Qin dynasty in China to the Mamluk warriors in the Sultanate of Egypt and the Janissaries, elite slaves of the Ottoman Empire, celibate public servants and warriors were used for this purpose.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the political movement that seeks to remove the artefacts of wang-wang culture and replace it with the rule of law should be so influenced by a small band of single brethren, the president himself being chief among them (either they are single or they are married to such wealthy women of substance, freeing them from the need for material accumulation allowing them to focus instead on the interests of the people).

Perhaps it is a mark of our political development as a nation that such a class of individuals has risen to the top. I hope it is an antecedent to our turning a corner on the rule of law. It goes against our political, cultural and biological programming, but I for one am glad that the president is able to refuse to go Hollywood on us by saying to the press corps, “hey, why don’t we just focus on affairs of the state and simply ‘forget Paris’.”

How long is a piece of string?

What yardstick are we using to measure P-Noy’s performance?

The arbitrary, rule of thumb of the first year in office is about to come and go for this administration. The obligatory journalistic pieces assessing the president’s performance have consulted the usual suspects.

Political analysts, polling firms and pundits, the business community and the average man on the street express varying degrees of satisfaction, from impatience on the part of Conrad de Quiros for instance, to a more sanguine position on the part of Mon Casiple. Regardless of their positions, they are essentially in agreement that while one year is too brief a period to expect major change, some demonstrably concrete level of progress or achievement is lacking in the president’s first 365 days in office.

As expected the president’s men were engaged in a charm offensive to address these complaints with Undersecretary Manolo Quezon of the Communications Group appearing on ANC, Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte on Twitter, and Budget Secretary Butch Abad polemically addressing the issue of economic management. The to-ing and fro-ing has been at times entertaining as in the case of the Valte-Magsaysay twitterverse exchanges and insightful as in the case of Quezon’s revelations about the president’s love life.

The advocates of the president (both in and out of government) say that much has been accomplished. The emphasis on government frugality and public spending restraint has created domestic private investor confidence and a credit ratings dividend according to Cielito Habito. Plugging the leaks in infrastructure spending has generated fiscal space to expand social spending by the end of the year according to Abad. Public private partnerships are “on track” to be consummated this year according to Finance officials.

That in essence is the shortlist of accomplishments brandished by Malacanang. Judging by his poll numbers, the public seems to give P-Noy the nod of approval with 64% expressing satisfaction with his performance.

Is that it, then? Should we give the president a pass too?

Unfortunately, what is missing is a solid discussion over, well…what sort of yardstick is appropriate for measuring the president’s performance. For instance,

• Shall we judge him on what he said he will do?

Based on the president’s anti-Gloria campaign theme, De Quiros now questions why the former president and her ilk have not been brought before any court to answer for her alleged transgressions. Based on his anti-corruption platform, the Management Association of the Philippines now asks why there have been no measures like the Freedom of Information bill or any meaningful reductions in business redtape progressed.

Civil rights advocates wonder what has happened to Jonas Burgos and many other like him. Women’s groups are still waiting for the RH Bill to be passed. Farmers are wondering what happened to the resolution of Hacienda Luisita. The ordinary man on the street wonders where the jobs are and the relief from the rising cost of living. These were issues PNoy promised to resolve once in office.

• On the other hand, should we judge him based on his ability to prudently modify or alter what he said he would do?

Those with a nationalist agenda like Teddy Casino say P-Noy is delivering more of the same as far as economic policy goes, and hopes he will re-think his developmental economic strategy. The anxiety felt by Casino and others like him (Walden Bello for instance) is that the quality of growth is poor and insufficient to make a dent on unemployment.

Budget analyst Ben Diokno is looking for a two-step tax reform process that will make the system fairer and more effective at raising revenues. Both of these policy prescriptions run counter to the “steady as she goes” pronouncements that PNoy made during the election season.

Measuring up

The answer to the question, what yardstick do we use, depends on whether you are a strict contractualist or not. Some will say, we should evaluate the president plainly on what he said he would do, and nothing more. For me, however, I believe that given the tenor of the campaign, there were promises that were bound to be made in the spur of the moment, which need to be reconsidered.

The problem for the president of course is, whether you adhere to the strict contractual sense or not, he has failed to register meaningful progress on many fronts. So the question then becomes, how much time should we give him before we start downgrading his performance assessment? How long before we start saying that the president has either reneged or foolishly forged ahead down a dead end path?

Should we give him another six months? A full year? Two years? It’s like asking the question, how long is a piece of string?

After all, for the marginalized groups awaiting resolution to decade’s old injustices, their well-being has been put on hold for far too long. The well-healed chattering classes may feel aggrieved that bringing justice to Arroyo has been delayed, but their grief is nothing compared to what farmers and human rights abuse victims have suffered.

Similarly for those denied access to education, healthcare, sanitation and protection from the elements, the experiment to improve tax collection without a root and branch reform process would prove to be the most costly of all, if it fails. Is it therefore worth the gamble?

Perhaps, it is in addressing the needs of the least of our brethren that the president ought to be judged. In his “Back to the Future” moment, the president like his mother in the mid-1980s seemed to have prioritized the needs of rich creditors and bondholders over that of poor and marginalized stakeholders. Private investments have improved the skyline, but public investment failed to raise more out of the poverty line.

How long is a piece of string? Well we will have to wait and see…

Nothing New

Strange but true, the cat calls made by Mrs Arroyo and her allies have goaded the P-Noy administration to return fire.

Over the weekend, as the country suffered from the effects of yet another powerful cyclone, there was a different kind of disturbance inserted into twitterverse with Congresswoman Mitos Magsaysay and Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte quareling over the economic legacy of Mrs Arroyo.

The tempest in a teacup was over whether P-Noy was up to the task of maintaining the momentum. Today, the Cabinet’s chief ideologue, Budget Sec Butch Abad joined the fray. From the government’s official gazette, Abad was quoted as saying

It is amusing at the same time galling for Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to lecture President Noynoy Aquino about building on the gains of her government. The first question that comes to mind is what gains? The people’s gains, or her gains? …Prudent expenditure took a back seat to political survival and political patronage during the previous administration.

It is worth noting that whenever the opposition bring up Mrs Arroyo’s glowing economic credentials, the administration can only point to the waste and alleged corruption in her government as a counterargument.

The irony is that contrary to their claim that good governance leads to growth, the administration in its first year has proven that actually cleaning up government can have the unintended consequence of lowering growth. The silver lining in all of this is that as Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda claims the administration has completed its housecleaning, spending and growth can resume their normal pace.

Sensitive for a reason

In its second year, having made good on its promise to clean up processes for procurement, the government is now prepared to make good on its promise to bring about better economic outcomes. It is hoping to do this with an 8-12% boost to its budget in 2012 (after a nominal growth of 2% last year) and a re-alignment of physical infrastructure spending to social spending for the remainder of 2011 (having missed the chance to spend on the former during the dry season).

At this point, the administration seems vulnerable on two fronts, the first being that it has not delivered on its clean government completely having fallen victim to potential charges of cronyism, the so called KKK (kaibigan, kaklase, kabarilan). The second one has to do with the less than stellar employment and growth figures in its first year.

The real subtext of the opposition’s attack is that P-Noy’s government has been inept at delivering both good governance AND growth. With stiff economic headwinds from a souring world economy over the next twelve months resulting from austerity measures in Europe and the US, the government’s growth target of 5-6% may be difficult to attain given the weak first half of the year.

Key to the attainment of the government’s growth projections will be its ability to attract foreign direct investments as fund managers look to emerging markets to offset the bleak outlook in the West. The problem is that during the first three quarters of his presidency, investments from abroad have sunk. While the slack may have been made up for by domestic investors, the same cannot be expected to hold true in the future after domestic pent-up demand for new plant and equipment runs out.

Should the public private partnerships fail to gain traction in a timely fashion, it could spell the end for investment prospects in the latter part of the year. Having staked all its eggs in the PPP basket, the big risk is that the absence of an alternative economic strategy or Plan B could lead to a loss of public support for this government. Having refused to look at new taxes, the government’s revenues and spending capacity are totally dependent on the economy growing as expected.

Binary Choices

From psychology we have learnt that the mind can only distinguish things in contrast to others. That is why we can relate to stories that use binary opposites (good versus evil, light versus darkness). Our eyes are not trained to see a black strand when it is set against a black canvass. We need to see things in black and white.

The same goes for the narrative of this government. Its legitimacy came from distinguishing itself from the previous administration in terms of honesty and integrity. Its continuing popularity is based on its ability to make that contrast.

When it was in opposition, it claimed that Arroyo’s economic record was tarnished because it was not able to translate economic growth to the welfare of its citizens. It claimed it alone could do that through a good government agenda. Now that it is in government, it is finding that its own economic management is being called into question.

The nationalist legislator Teddy Casino, an ally of the president has stated that the main reason why the economic performance of the Aquino administration does not differ from the Arroyo regime is not because it has failed to address good governance, but because it has failed to set a different economic agenda. He may not be too far off the mark.

In the end, the tendency of governments to turn to patronage as a form of political survival is not due to their failure to bring about good governance, but because of their failure to make economic growth felt by the broader community. For this reason, the charge that P-Noy is doing nothing new, may be the most damaging of all.

Sticking to the script

Marking the 113th anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence, President Aquino used the solemn occasion to highlight the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to rid the country of corruption.

Speaking at the ancestral mansion of Emilio Aguinaldo, the revolutionary leader in Kawit, Cavite, who became the first Philippine president, PNoy said that he would end the cycle of corruption that has added to the suffering of Filipinos living below the poverty line. At the shrine of Jose Rizal in Luneta, the president rhetorically asked whether indeed the national artist would still have been willing to lay down his life to free his country if he were alive today.

At the Vin d’honneur in Malacanang Palace, PNoy affirmed to everyone there that just as his parents dedicated their lives to the restoration of freedom and the rebuilding of democracy, he would dedicate his to bring about a more prosperous and progressive country.

In all these speeches, the president appeared to be “sticking to the script” that was laid down during his election campaign of fighting poverty by eradicating corruption. The president was indeed most presidential when he stuck to the high road in this way pointing to modest achievements in his first year of having stopped questionable contracts and compensation practices in government agencies and companies.

It was through his spokeswoman Abigail Valte that we learned that this involved some $23 million or over P1 billion in spending at the public works department and from Budget Sec Butch Abad we found out that GOCC’s were able to produce $686 million or P29.5 billion worth of savings this year. Part of these savings went to housing of soldiers in Bulacan province.

It appears therefore that the president seems fully convinced that the path he has chosen of reducing waste in government will lead to greater capacity on the government’s part to raise social spending and bring down the incidence of poverty. The example he cites was the reduction of rice importation to less than half of the previous year’s 2.5 million tons and the funding of the conditional cash transfers program benefiting indigent families.

Perhaps where PNoy appeared less presidential and deviated from the script somewhat was when he addressed criticisms from the opposition accusing him of living the “high life” by his enjoyment of “wine, women and song” or “fast cars and girls”. The president’s response that he had done nothing illegal seemed to mimic the former US president Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair or the more contemporary case of New York Cong Weiner who admitted to flirting with several women via Twitter.

Aside from this, one other possible inaccuracy in his speeches was when he pointed out that the savings made by his government through the close scrutiny of its infrastructure and loan contracts were re-allocated to social programs. The first year of his presidency has indeed seen a slowdown of government capital expenditure and interest payments, but the growth in its spending for social programs resulting from this has yet to be seen.

Indeed the first few months of this year saw the rise of hunger, unemployment and poverty along with a rapid slowdown in growth. Perhaps this inconvenient truth was what was left out in all the speeches. However, PNoy did admit that the challenges of improving living conditions still remained, and that he was committed to address them during the remainder of his presidency.

The more important question however is whether the formula he has set out to follow will indeed produce the sort of growth and jobs that it promises to deliver or whether the script needs to change at some point.

Democracy is already in the recovery room as of May 2010

I just love how Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte phrased it.

Q: Ma’am, former Chief Justice Puno said that he is pushing for Charter Change. Will this make you rethink your position?

VALTE: Well, no, because the President has always been consistent in saying that nobody has been able to present an argument to prove that there really is urgency in changing the Constitution, and that again, not doing so would place the country at risk. But having said that, I believe that the former Chief Justice said that democracy is on a stretcher. We’d like to respond by saying that democracy is already in the recovery room as of May 2010.

True, most apt, and nicely phrased.