POSTSCRIPT / April 27, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why do we need mayor's permit to walk and talk?

REPREHENSIBLE: One need not be a lawyer to know that this Malacanang invention called CPR — or “Calibrated Preemptive Response” to citizens’ peaceful assemblies — is a legal monster.

On the face of it alone, the order of a jittery president to the police to disperse — violently if necessary — citizens who do not have government permission to assemble and speak their minds is wrong. It is legally reprehensible.

No such permit is needed since the Constitution itself has given the permit when it said in Section 4 of Article III (Bill of Rights): “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Why would like-minded well-meaning citizens need the permission of Lito Atienza, who just happens to be a mayor, to get together and express themselves on public issues?

No wonder the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional this monster called CPR that inflicts police violence on citizens who do not bother to secure government’s permission to exercise their basic right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

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SPECULATION: The basic unresolved question still is: Why do we citizens in a democracy need government permission to express our thoughts in the street?

The question was not satisfactorily answered by the Supreme Court when, in the same decision striking down CPR, it upheld Batas Pambansa No. 880 requiring government permits for rallies in public places.

The main reason given for requiring a permit is to prevent such public rallies from disturbing the peace and violating the rights of others who are not rally participants.

The problem is that this reasoning assumes, incorrectly, that the rally will disturb the peace and violate the rights of other people. This assumption is faulty because it is based on mere speculation, not facts.

In some cases, it is based on paranoia, which is a symptom of a person in authority suffering from fear, anxiety and doubtful legitimacy.

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MIND-READING: Mayor Lito Atienza has many skills and talents, but reading minds is not one of them.

How will he and the other mayors under the thumb of Malacanang know that a proposed rally in their jurisdiction will turn unruly and disturb the peace, or that it will violate the rights of non-participants?

Yet on the basis of pure guesswork and speculation, they deny rally permits.

A policeman cannot arrest a man dressed in rags staring into the glass window of a jewelry shop on suspicion that he might be planning to rob the store. There has to be an overt act or a clear intent to justify a calibrated preemptive arrest.

In the same manner, without probable cause, a mayor cannot speculate that a group is likely to cause disorder and violate the rights of other people — and on that basis alone deny the group a permit to hold a rally.

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PRE-JUDGMENT: On this point, the Supreme Court was not convincing enough, at least not to me, when it upheld the validity of the martial law Batas Pambansa 880 requiring permits for citizens intending to assemble in public places and speak up.

Sure, such mass action has to be regulated or managed in the public interest, but not to the extent that basic rights — such as that on free speech and peaceful assembly — are curtailed even before the first sign of activity.

The moment the group makes a false move — but not before — the police can move in with their calibrated preemptive response. The mayor cannot jump the gun on them and deny them a permit days before the event.

I know this has been argued back and forth ad nauseam, but we have to keep insisting that prior restraint based on mere speculation has no place in a democracy.

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PERMIT NOT NEEDED: This is the same reason why we citizens do not need a government permit or license to publish our thoughts on a piece of paper or the pages of a newspaper.

Why should a citizen be required to get the prior permission (or license) of the government to say something about a public issue or to print that something?

To require licensing of newspapers is a clear case of prior restraint, because even before we are able to print the first word or the first line of thought, we are already being restrained by the requirement for a government permit or license.

Considering the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution, such prior restraint is unacceptable. Prior restraint is nothing but pure and simple censorship.

The mayor’s permit that is required and is issued to newspaper firms is not a permit to publish, because there is no such requirement for free speech in a true democracy, but a license or permit to do business.

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DAVID’S CASE: We are confronted with the same prior restraint, the same censorship, the same violation of basic rights when we are required to first get a mayor’s permit to walk together with other citizens and speak our minds.

A glaring case of prior restraint and a violation of basic rights was the arrest of UP Prof. Randy David while he was peacefully walking with other citizens and saying something into his cellphone.

Policemen should know better. If they do not know or, worse, do not respect this basic fact, they have no business wearing the uniform, flashing the badge and presuming to perform police duties.

If a mayor does not know or respect this basic fact of life in a democracy, he has no business sitting at City Hall and presuming to stifle freedoms guaranteed by no less than the Constitution.

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GOV’T THREAT: The newspapers should not gloss over the fact that government itself now poses a threat to them, instead of its helping strengthen media as one of the pillars of the community.

The administration is continually restricting the space within which media operate. Sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it fails. The series of executions of outspoken members of media is, to say the least, disturbing.

The final score will be determined mainly by how alert the media stay and how, closing ranks, they fend off attempts to curtail the freedoms crucial to their functioning.

It is sad that instead of helping media grow into robust and responsible members of the community, the government is grabbing them by the throat, stifling their freedoms and stunting their growth.

Newspapers normally do not hang their dirty linen for public viewing or sob on the public’s shoulder about their problems, but it is time that their readers were told that times have not been exactly good for most of media, especially print.

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STAGNATION: Print media (newspapers, magazines, tabloids) have stagnated. In the mainstream, there are only about three big ones that are making enough profits to keep stockholders happy.

The economy cannot support all the publications of various shapes and biases (there are more than 35 of them) on the sidewalk. Most of them are losing piles of money every month, month after month, year after year, with no break-even point in sight.

The combined nationwide circulation of all print media is not even 2 million. With the country’s population of almost 85 million boasting of a literacy rate of 88 percent, how come print media are able to sell only 2 million copies on any given day?

What makes the 2-million figure even more disturbing is the fact that the present 2 million consolidated circulation is the same 2 million figure that print media have been reporting since two decades ago.

Despite the population explosion, increased economic activity and advances in information technology, the market for print media has not grown.

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TV OUTPACES PRINT: In contrast, broadcast media (radio and TV) have become an exciting growth area. Broadcast media now dominate the field, with electronic media (Internet, wireless and satellite communication) trying to catch up.

Of the 16.9 million households in the country, 13.5 million have TV, now the main source of news and entertainment for the average Filipino family.

Broadcast media, television in particular, have been gaining a growing share of the advertising budget of important businesses. This is recognition of the growing influence of TV over the masses that seem to have surrendered to the audio-visual allure of the boob tube.

Let us face it. Filipinos are not a reading lot. We will not discuss in this limited space whose fault it is, but the media themselves and our educational system have something to do with the problem.

Clearly, the newspapers have to reinvent themselves if they are to survive, grow in readership and influence, and claim a bigger share in the information market.

And we newspapermen will have to look inward, at ourselves, before we presume to look outward to our readers.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 27, 2006)

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