NOT FOR his distinguished legislative record—he practically had none—was Benigno S. Aquino III elected to the Philippine Presidency in 2010, but for his presumed libertarian and human rights heritage.
Benigno Aquino Jr. was an authentic hero for daring to return home in 1983 despite the certainty of either arrest or assassination. A turning point in the decade-long resistance against dictatorship, the outrage that followed his death accelerated the collapse of the Marcos terror regime by finally galvanizing the middle class into, if not armed resistance, at least massing at EDSA in 1986.
To Corazon Aquino fell the task of dismantling the apparatus of dictatorship and restoring the institutions of the pre-1972 democracy that, flawed as it had been, nevertheless provided citizens the trappings if not the substance of choosing their leaders. She was not entirely successful, primarily because, as the main support of dictatorship and one of its worst and most tenacious legacies, the military had become a major power and power broker. Besieged by numerous coup attempts calculated to undermine any attempt at reform, Corazon Aquino meant well, but left Malacañang with human rights still being violated and under threat.
In 2010, Aquino III rode to power on the assumption that, for his parents’ legacies, he was committed to human rights. As if to validate that assumption, Aquino III campaigned on, among others, a promise to stop extrajudicial killings, support the Freedom of Information bill, and address the culture of impunity that encourages the killing of journalists. Those who took Aquino at his word assumed that he understood that at the heart of the imperative to stop human rights violations is the right to free expression as a necessary condition for democratic discourse.
Human rights and journalists’ groups have since been slowly but surely disappointed. Last September, Mr. Aquino quickly signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which among other assaults on free expression not only makes the already problematic, 82-year old libel law applicable online. It also raises the penalty of imprisonment from the already excessive six months to four years to six years to twelve.
His spokespersons earlier denied his responsibility for RA 10175, despite his having signed it. When pressed, Mr. Aquino categorically declared that he was for it, and what’s more, favored the retention of libel—and the increased penalties for it—in the law if and when it was amended. But during a press conference last October 17 with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), Mr. Aquino said he favored the decriminalization of libel.
No one at this point believes Mr. Aquino’s latest take on RA 10175. It was obvious that Mr. Aquino was pandering to the foreign press when he said he was for the decriminalization of libel. But it wasn’t only his earlier statements that made his FOCAP statement of dubious sincerity. There is also the outstanding fact that, despite a promise to work for a Freedom of Information Act, once elected he displayed such an antipathy for it Malacañang’s first versions were distinguished for their emphasis on exemptions and a mindset focused on regulation and control rather than on citizen access to government-held information as a matter of right.
Mr. Aquino’s latest statement on human rights is no less indicative of the same authoritarian, unthinking, and self-serving outlook. Interviewed over radio in New Zealand about his administration’s human rights record, he described human rights violations as the product of leftist propaganda, arguing in the same breath that the members of state security forces like the police and the military have rights too but that human rights organizations pay no attention to their plight.
If the widespread belief that human rights are being violated until now is indeed the product of leftist propaganda, it would mean that leftists have unquestioned access to the dominant organizations of print and broadcast. Any content analysis of the reporting and commentary by radio, TV, and the major broadsheets will establish that leftists—I do not mean those who belong to those rightwing organizations that for some reason the media persist in describing as “left”—not only have the most limited access to these media organizations. They are also habitually demonized and ridiculed, the most common epithet of demonization being the phrase “extreme left,” to distinguish authentic left groups from the respectably conventional but hardly leftwing organizations with which the Aquino administration is in cozy alliance.
As for human rights violations, hasn’t Mr. Aquino heard about the killing of environmentalist Leonard Co in November 2010 or of journalists like Gerry Ortega in January 2011? What of the killing of Italian Priest Fr. Fausto Tentorio, and of the Dutch volunteer Willem Geertman? Or, for that matter, the beatings to which suspected criminals are routinely subjected in practically every police station in the land? What of the continuing killing of workers and farmers fighting for their rights, or of human rights workers and defenders? Or the impunity with which the police and military detain, harass, and even kill ordinary citizens, including students in practicum in the communities? Are these mere products of “leftist propaganda”?
And what of the supposed rights of state actors? Do these rights supersede those of citizens who’re defending themselves? Does not state actors’ (e.g., the police and military) monopoly over the use of legal force, and their obligations under the law, make them accountable?
If Mr. Aquino thought that anyone in his right mind believed his statement about human rights violations’ being the mere product of leftist propaganda, he has another thing coming. Everyone else except Mr. Aquino and his administration knows what’s going on in the human rights arena in the Philippines. I am not solely referring to such non-governmental organizations as Human Rights Watch, which has been asking Mr. Aquino to do something about human rights violations; Amnesty International; or the Asian Human Rights Council. I am also referring to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the governments of the United States and New Zealand, among others.
The US State Department human rights report has documented numerous human rights violations under the Aquino administration—this year it placed them at a conservative 20 incidents in 2011—and what’s more has noted that the Philippine government investigated and prosecuted only a handful of those cases. It’s a record of impunity that includes the Aquino administration’s continuing failure to prosecute the killers of journalists, and certainly not the creation of “leftist propaganda.”
Mr. Aquino revealed himself an enemy of free expression when he signed RA 10175 while the FOI bill was languishing in Congress and its principal advocate was removed from the Liberal Party’s roster of senatorial candidates for 2013. He has also revealed a level of cynicism and insensitivity to the plight of the kin of the forcibly disappeared, the murdered, the tortured, and the falsely imprisoned equal to that of the worst thugs resident in the police and military. He has thereby established that he, his allies, and his administration are unworthy of the support of anyone truly human, and who understand how the persistent violations of human rights in the Philippines and the assault on free expression have made this country so much the lesser in the community of nations.