By Vergel Santos
Oftener and oftener, the official line is repeated: Democracy is alive and well.
Doesn't anyone wonder: If indeed democracy is alive and well why can't it be left to stand alone, unpropped? One is reminded of Ferdinand Marcos: As he and his dictatorship lay dying, they were lied about as being in robust health.
Anyway, if you are so poor that all you have is hope, which happens to be the prevalent case, it shouldn't be so difficult to believe in the lie; it may even be excusable.
Otherwise, you have no excuse for not somehow sensing, if not altogether recognizing, certain basic, critical realities of Philippine socio-political life, one of which is precisely that - democracy in fact becomes less alive and less well in this country with every repetition of the lie that proclaims the opposite.
In fact, recognizing that, and accepting it, is only the initial demand of democratic citizenship. The next demand is to act, to do something, not only for one's own sake but also for the sake of that other citizen - the one deprived of the suitable capacity by poverty.
Still, where the capacity exists, acting as demanded admittedly isn't so easy to do either - not in the face of the constant bombardment of official propaganda (like State of the Nation Addresses), nor in the face of intimidation, by courtesy usually of the justice secretary - intimidation that itself has become a more or less standard component of the propaganda. Thus, a certain degree of sensitivity, a certain quality of conscience, and a certain amount of courage are required for one to be able to act at all, let alone act with any conviction. No less a price need be paid if the conspiratorial leadership of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is to be defeated and democracy consequently redeemed.
But exactly what are you paying for - what is democracy and what is your stake in it? Freedom, justice, and truth - that's what. But again, what are freedom, justice, and truth if not mere words that may be manipulated to produce a desired picture in an audience's mind? Well, not if you listen closely enough, not if you ask the proper questions and demand answers, not, in any case, if you raise the proper challenge.
For all the praise it is paid in law and doctrine, democracy remains a mere ideal. Its true, practical quality is measured according not only to the actual restrictions put on the practice but also to the risks involved in it. Let's take the foremost entitlement due a citizen in a democracy - freedom of expression. How much of what he likes to say is he in fact able to say without any fear of reprisal?
Once a group of protesters decides to exercise that freedom, say, by street demonstration, it is supposed to just do it. All that it is expected to have done beforehand is give notice to the authorities, the police specifically. The point is not to seek their permission, by the way, but to simply alert them so that they can make the arrangements that will ensure order during the demonstration, all the time keeping in mind the primacy of the freedom being exercised. Those arrangements may consist in rerouting traffic and warning workers and students to start early for the day, their own right to choose to get to work or school on time having been outranked.
As happens, it's mere paper freedom. In today's practice the authorities decide not only when and where the demonstration should take place, but also whether it should take place at all; sometimes they prescribe even the colors of the shirts the demonstrators should wear and the flags and streamers they should bear, and also the markings they should have on them. Non-compliance - never mind resistance - is met with a whack on the head with a police club or bombardment with a water canon or arrest.
Similarly, the principles of democratic justice have been turned upside down. Where democracy is meant to err on the side of rights, freedom, and presumption of innocence, it in fact errs on the side of power, suppression, and presumption of guilt. The number alone of anti-government militants (officially labelled leftists or communists) and journalists murdered during Arroyo's presidency is testament enough: the modest counts are 300-plus militants and 50-plus journalists - the latter count is more than two-thirds the total since 1986, when democracy supposedly was restored upon the defeat of Marcos's 14-year dictatorship.
Two official theories have been advanced in the militants' case - that the murders have been the result of a purge inside the communist movement itself, and that they have been timed with the term of a government with which anti-communism has become a matter of reflex, the easier to deflect suspicions toward it. Both theories fly in the face of communist practice, which sensibly confines purges to the leadership. In fact, the murdered militants were mostly civil-society activists and community workers. On the other hand, the authorities have been as quick to blame the journalists' murders on corrupt and abusive media practice as they have been slow to act against the murderers themselves. At any rate, this official cold-bloodedness and twisted sense of retributive proportion could have only created an atmosphere friendly to assassins.
Where freedom is suppressed and justice perverted, how indeed could truth manage to come up for air and light, let alone stay alive and well? In fact, the one truth that is itself the key to democracy's redemption lies beneath ton upon ton of false claims to achievement, false promises, and other misrepresentations, its prospect of revival dimming by the moment. It is the one truth Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo desperately wishes permanently killed, buried, and forgotten because it proves her an illegal president. It is the truth that caught her on tape desecrating the vote by intervening with an election commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano, for her own presidential victory - the truth she in fact effectively owned to when she said she could not reveal her part in it because if she did she would incriminate herself. It is the truth that constitutes the original sin that has been allowed to perpetuate itself and breed further sins.
It is the Hello Garci truth, or have we stopped minding it? For if we have and can yet live with ourselves, we might as well believe that democracy is neither about freedom nor about justice nor about truth.
Then, we can go on to believe further that democracy is indeed alive and well!