A conspiracy against freedom

Mon, 03/20/2006 - 00:00
Press Freedom

No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press. . . .

For more than two centuries, that sentence, written originally into the American constitution and borrowed for the Philippine one, has stood unchallenged as the very bedrock of democracy. But if it remains good for the Americans, not for the Filipinos - if only in the judgment, that is, of certain constitution tinkers. In fact, they are done tinkering with it, inserting a phrase in the original and leaving us with this (the insertion is set in italic for easy spotting):

No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press. . . .

A mere phrase of four words, and the deed is done: Usage, good sense, and principle are all violated. What more can one not ask for?

Awkward usage arises with the application of "abridging" to "the responsible Rowena Bengon does not know the first thing about the news business - that there's only news and that news only becomes good or bad depending on how a reader or listener takes itexercise of" a freedom. It is principles, philosophies, doctrines, and such other long-enduring systems of ideas that are liable to abridgment in the sense originally intended here - substantial, not literal, subtraction or diminution. But, then, what do we want, good usage or good law? That I ask with apologies to the advertising person who wrote the line "...tastes good like a cigarette should" - like, that is, instead of the grammatical, though rather stilted, as. "What do you want, good taste or good grammar?" the copywriter asked.

Alas, our constitution tinkers give us neither good usage nor good taste nor good sense nor good law. Their work is rich in evidence of that lack; their usage violation is but one instance, and it is singled out here because of its deceptive innocuousness. Apparently the tinkers had become so sold to the word responsible, confident in its inherent harmlessness, they just had to force it in as unobstrusively as they could. A trick in short. In and by itself, the word responsible is indeed a good word - a good word in that it connotes virtue. In fact, it embraces a range of other words of more or less similar connotation - discretion, prudence, judiciousness, carefulness, selflessness, maturity. One can go on and on; it is that sort of word.

But words find their true worth only in the context in which they are used. And, as inserted in the constitution's freedom provision, the word responsible has been not just cheapened but given an insidious twist.

A most vociferous defender of the insertion, Romela Bengzon, a corporate lawyer, has all but confessed to it. She has observed how the media have become so "focused...on bad news" foreign investors are discouraged. Many of them are her company's own clients, she says, making one wonder whether, as a constitution drafter, she has not kept them in mind as her constituency. One thing obvious, though, is she does not know the first thing about the news business - that there's only news and that news only becomes good or bad depending on how a reader or listener takes it.

At any rate, asked to explain the insertion - never mind for now her part in it despite her fundamental ignorance of the business it affects - she seems to say that the word responsible has been intended as a reminder that freedom has its matching responsibility - as if a constitution can ever work as a reminder in any practical sense and as if good journalists need to be reminded and bad ones wish to be reminded. Anyway, I say "seems to say" because it may not be her exact idea; neither is reminder her exact word. But that's the safest representation I can manage out of her cloudy thoughts. To wit: Asked if she finds the original provision inadequate without the word responsible, she says no; asked then why she thinks there's a need for the word, she says "for focus" and "to enhance", two phrases she tends to drop habitually without any subject or object that may help make herself comprehensible. Pressed to define the word responsible so that it may serve as a definite standard against which practice may be measured, she says that there are enough specific laws and jurisprudence for that and that it is for the courts to apply them. Which makes it superfluous.

In the end, one gets the impression that Bengzon and her colleagues have put the word there because they simply wanted it there. Well, I for one don't want it there, and for a definite reason: Press freedom is intended to be bestowed upon every journalist in a democracy in its fullest measure.
I imagine that Bengzon, or anyone else with a similarly quibbling turn of mind, will seize on the phrase "fullest measure" and insist on inserting, again, the word responsible between the two words that comprise the phrase. I imagine further that she will, again, be unable to define that insertion in practical terms and, again, take refuge in the existent standards that precisely make her insertion, again, superfluous.

There is simply not a jot of compensating wisdom to be found in such insertions. Not even the idea that a law may be passed making it unlawful for anyone to make a fool of himself by opening his mouth holds any potential in that respect. Bengzon and her fellows may judge that case a punishable irresponsible exercise of freedom; I do not. In fact, I thank such self-made fools for all the fun they have brought me. They are my cherished freedom fools.

Indeed, press freedom has been articulated so delicately to perfection in the original that it can't bear the slightest tinkering without suffering abridgment. But why are Bengzon and company so insistent? One cannot know for a fact, although one can have a good idea knowing how they have come to style themselves as constitution drafters. In fact, since very possibly the results of all their tinkering will be put to a national vote, it is critical to know, and constantly remember, that they have all come from, going by opinion polls, the most distrusted president in the nation's history, a president whose very moral authority is in fact in question. They were her choice, not the people's. Contrary to normal arrangements, they didn't take the cue from the people. In fact, the people have been left largely clueless, and may be surprised to find that the president's tinkers have decided not only to abridge their freedoms but also -

  • one, to suspend their vote and allow all sitting officials to remain sitting until 2010, whether or not their terms be up before then;
  • two, to change the form of government from a presidential form to a parliamentary form in which the nation's fate is decided in only one house, thus decided potentially conspiratorially;
  • three, to keep themselves, the constitution tinkers, eligible for office under their own constitution, along with the members of Congress, who will approve it before it is put to the people as a final surprise.

Although the constitution tinkers worked much like a bulldozer programmed to clear a path for itself, they managed, as veritable conspirators against freedom, to do so unobserved.

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