POSTSCRIPT / April 5, 2007 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Sacrificing basic rights at altar of anti-terrorism

BALANCING ACT: Can we Filipinos live with the possibility that we could end up sacrificing basic human rights — such as the right to life, speech and liberty — at the altar of anti-terrorism?

As the government adopts the American anti-terrorism line and steps up its own crusade against manifestations of terrorism, we notice an apparent drift toward militarization and a rise in the incidence of alleged human rights violations.

The balancing of anti-terrorism measures and human rights protection is not peculiar to this country. In the United States, there is also concern that some freedoms may suffer as the Bush administration, playing the role of globo-cop, goes all-out against terrorism.

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SURVIVAL: Discussing press freedom in the context of national survival, Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno has warned against going overboard in fighting terrorism to the extent of sacrificing basic human rights.

Addressing the Capampangan in Media Inc. days ago, the Chief Justice said:

“Today, we are still slowly losing our freedoms in the fight against terrorism, in fighting an enemy without a face, in fighting battles without battle lines, in fighting a war without finality. We are also losing our God-given human rights — to life, liberty and property — to artificial persons like transnational corporations, whose empire of greed is gobbling up the world.”

Puno warned of “faceless enemies” who come in the guise of saviors. He said:

“The tragedy is that they are taking our freedoms on the pretext of giving us peace; the irony is that they are asking our freedoms to be sacrificed allegedly to bring us progress.”

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MANY WAYS: Tyranny is intolerable, the Chief Justice said, but “the worst tyrants are those who deny our freedom on the pretext of doing so to protect us.”

The unbearable tyrants are those who come in the “habiliments of saviors.” He said: “This delusion destroys liberty, and almost always the first to go is freedom of speech and of the press.”

Tracing the history of the libertarian bent of the local media, Puno recounted the various ways in which colonizers and Filipino leaders moved to limit press freedom.

During the American occupation, he said, the US forces checked their critics in the press with “velvet hands and not with iron fists,” silencing them with legal weapons through the filing of rebellion, sedition and libel charges. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? — fdp)

During the Marcosian martial rule, the dictator — a brilliant lawyer — made it a point to first lay the legal basis of what he intended to do. He used the Constitution, even rewrote it completely, to prolong his stay in Malacanang after his two-term limit expired.

In the eyes of legal historians, Puno noted, Marcos used the Constitution to give himself extra powers to deal with perceived emergencies. The mainstream press was a casualty in the exercise of these extra powers.

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U.S. CRISES: The American counterparts of the local press also went through such crises in their history.

Puno said:.“Despite their triumphs, some legal scholars are now asking the disquieting question whether in the process of surviving their crises, too much freedom was denied the Americans.

“In other words, they are tortured by the thought that in times of crisis, their government has tilted the balance too much in favor of security and too little in favor of liberty.”

He quoted from American scholar Dean Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, who had claimed that the US Supreme Court applied constitutional standards that strongly accord the President and Congress the benefit of the doubt, while ruling against the liberty of the people.

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PAUSE AND PONDER: Puno said: “This antipathy of the US Supreme Court towards liberty was attributed by Stone to the excessive fear of the justices, characteristic of people gripped by excessive fear during crises, with the government subsequently overreacting.

“Dean Stone’s piercing insights should also make us ponder on the restrictions we impose on our liberties, especially on freedom of speech and of the press, during national emergencies.”

Puno counseled. “We ought to pause, for the signs of the times say there will still be crises to visit us. We have glorified freedom of speech and of the press as a preferred freedom, occupying a higher rung in the hierarchy of constitutional values.”

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ANTIPATHY: Still on Stone, the Chief Justice said: “Similarly, he pointed out that in government-overthrow cases, the US Supreme Court permitted the prohibition of the express advocacy of a violent overthrow of government. This antipathy of the US Supreme Court towards liberty was attributed by Dean Stone to the excessive fear of the Justices characteristic of people during crises.

“He theorizes that in the United States during wartime — whether in the Civil War of 1798, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam War, and the ongoing War on Terrorism — the American people were gripped by excessive fear, and their government overreacted.

“(Stone) notes that this overreaction resulted in the excessive curtailment of freedom of speech and of the press, which the United States later regretted.”

Puno further quoted Stone as saying: “The Sedition Act of 1798 has been condemned in the ‘court of history.’ Lincoln’s suspensions of habeas corpus were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Ex Parte Milligan, the Court’s own decisions upholding the World War I prosecution of dissenters were all later effectively overruled, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II has been the subject of repeated government apologies and reparations.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 5, 2007)

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