Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Posts Tagged ‘freedom of expression’

Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis and the Freedom of Expression

Posted by butalidnl on 17 February 2015

The popular response to the Charlie Hebdo (CH) incident shows that most people condemn a violent response to news articles that they do not like (i.e. by killing the authors). However, there is less agreement on whether or not CH crossed a line of acceptability.
CH itself insists that the Freedom of Expression should be unconditional;  because if a government limits it, that government will be able to curtail other human rights with impunity.
On the other hand, Pope Francis says that the freedom of expression should be limited by respect for religion.

Respect vs Absolute Freedom
There are problems with both views. Let us take Pope Francis’ view first. In effect, he says that the freedom of expression should not violate standards of behaviour determined by various religions. But these standards themselves are not uniform, or even consistent. Laws to enforce ‘respect’ for religion often become ‘anti-blasphemy’ laws. A problem with anti-blasphemy laws is that they enforce a religion’s rules on non-members. Anti-blasphemy laws has resulted in the imprisonment, and even the deaths, of Christians in certain Muslim-majority countries e.g. Pakistan.

The Philippines has one such law, which we inherited from Spanish times. Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code in the Philippines specifies prison terms for those who hurt religious feelings; we could call it our ‘anti-blasphemy law lite’.

When evangelical Christians condemned the Black Nazarene practice as idolatry, they were threatened with a charge under Article 133, for hurting the feelings of Roman Catholics . But, to be fair, isn’t the parading around of ‘idols’ hurting the feelings of evangelical Christians?
Then, there is Carlos Celdran’s ‘Damaso’ action in the Manila Cathedaral that is supposed to have offended religious feelings. Celdran was protesting against the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) stand on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill by silently holding up a placard saying ‘Damaso’ in the Manila Cathedral. The Manila Archdiocese promptly filed a suit against Celdran, on the basis of Article 133.  But which ‘religious feelings’ were being disrespected by him? It seems that Celdran was merely ‘disrespecting’ the political stance of the church hierarchy, nothing else.
This case is reminiscent of the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot protesters by the Russian government, on the basis of being disrespectful of the Russian Orthodox church, which was widely condemned.

The Freedom of Religion should allow for various religions to freely criticize each other, especially when it comes to matters of religious doctrine. Otherwise we would have the tyranny of a favored religion. In the Philippines, it is the Catholic church which is being protected from hurt, or disrespect, no matter what this costs in terms of other religions’ beliefs or freedom of religion.

But CH’s belief in the absolute freedom of expression also has problems.  Absolute freedom of expression could easily be abused by people who want to incite others to discriminate against, attack, or prosecute people because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or political beliefs. It will allow people to call for the persecution of other religions (or any other group), or to advocate steps that will inhibit other people’s freedom of religion. For example, there could be calls to prohibit the construction of mosques (which would inhibit Muslims’ right to worship). Recent Facebook posts (in the Netherlands) calling for people to burn mosques are another example. One may say that those are just words: but words can kill. Some people did respond to those calls with action – a number of mosques were subsequently firebombed.

Upholding Human Rights
European countries generally follow another rule: that the freedom of expression is limited only by other human rights and freedoms. I would call this the HR principle. In this, the freedom of expression is limited only in cases where it deprives (or potentially deprives) the human rights of other people e.g. the right to life, the right to practice their religion, the right to be free from discrimination.

When people call for the burning of mosques or the killing of Jews, the case is clear-cut. These should be forbidden, and the perpetrators punished. When CH draws caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, the principle is also easy to apply – the drawings do not inhibit anyone from practicing their religion. The Muslim prohibition on eating pork, and on making images of Molhammed, should cover only practicing Muslims, but not people of other beliefs.

But there are cases which are less clear-cut. When some people say that islam is a political ideology that breeds terrorists; it is not that easy to say that doing so violates the human rights of anyone. After all, ‘islam’ is not a person, ‘muslims’ are. Or those who say ‘homosexuality is an illness’ would have to be allowed – because it refers to ‘homosexuality’ and not homosexuals. The courts will have to decide, in these, and other borderline cases, which ones should be allowed in the spirit of upholding the freedom of expression.
But legally allowing certain border-line opinions to be expressed does not mean that everybody should stand idly by when this happens. Contrary articles, speeches, assemblies etc criticizing such ‘disrespectful’ positions should be also allowed in the spirit of freedom of expression. In other words, you are allowed to say disgusting things, but other people are also allowed to condemn your disgusting statements.

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Posted by butalidnl on 10 August 2011

There has been a lot of controversy about the art exhibit called Poleteismo by artist Mideo Cruz at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Cruz says that the exhibit is about “how religion has been commodified and how capitalist commerce has become the new religion”.  But many Catholics did not pay too much attention to the overall message of the exhibit, but to the penis on the cross.  The exhibit also showed Jesus with a clown’s nose and Mickey Mouse ears. They said that this was blasphemous – I wonder which shocked them more, the penis on the cross, or Jesus with a clown’s nose? . After all the furor, the board of the CCP decided to ‘temporarily’ close the exhibit.

I fully understand that some people found Poleteismo distasteful or ugly. After all, if I was an art collector, I probably wouldn’t want to buy such works of art – they are not to my taste, to say the least. But to ban it, or to persecute the CCP for exhibiting it, is way too much, an arrogant abuse of power.

But it seems that undue political pressure had been put on the CCP board to discontinue the exhibit. President PNoy Aquino for one, called the board to tell them that he disapproved of the exhibit. Then there were senators calling for cutting the budget for the CCP over this incident. I think the politicians have gone too far. They go even further than the official censors (i.e. those who censor motion pictures). At least the motion picture censors have the excuse that some movie scenes are a bad influence on children, thus explicit sex or graphic violence is not allowed by them. But in the CCP case, the censorship was not really a question of public morals, but rather ‘blasphemy’.

Blasphemy is defined as “irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs”. It is an ancient offense, which brings to our mind an ancient scene of a man stoned because he said that the Bible was not literally true, or the miracles are fake. Blasphemy is always the charge against people with a different view of religion.

In modern times, blasphemy is illustrated more by the uproar  against the Danish newspaper which published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Danish embassies were burned, Danish products were boycotted, and there were terrorist plans to kill people connected to the newspaper (luckily, the police were able to stop these).

There is also the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan, which is a law that persecutes Christians there. If a Christian has a conflict with a Muslim, the Muslim could simply claim that the Christian said something bad against Muslims, and then the Christian gets sentenced to death. Politicians in Pakistan who spoke out against this law have been assassinated.

I think the basis of blasphemy as a reason to ban, to suppress, or to kill somebody should be left in the Dark Ages. Citing blasphemy in the present-day Philippines only underscores our being a feudal and backward country.

Freedom of Expression
The suppression of ‘blasphemous’ art such as Poleteismo is a dark day for freedom in the Philippines. Freedom of expression boils down to the freedom to express contrary views. If people only had the ‘freedom to express’ things that are approved by the authorities, then it is not freedom at all. Even in a dictatorship, there is always the freedom to express pro-government opinions or views.

The question of whether the CCP, being government supported, should promote such ‘blasphemous’ art should be answered in the affirmative. The government should be the guarantor of the freedom of expression, instead of acting as a censor.

The country has everything to gain by protecting the freedom of expression – it would unleash the creativity of our artists, writers, movie makers, etc. The creative spirit could help Philippine economic development. The creative spirit is not nurtured by succumbing to the disapproval by church elders or the wife of our former dictator.

If you go around European art musea, you will notice that there was a long period where the only art was religious art or portraits – things that are absolutely non-controversial and non-blasphemous. Art then was extremely boring, and not beautiful. Then, there came the time when art took on other topics, many of which were scandalous. Some of these ‘scandalous’ art (e.g. nudes) was even beautiful, but the important thing was that a lot of other art got made, which would not have been the case if the tight censorship by the church had continued to prevail.

So, the question is: Do we want the Philippines to progress and be open to new ideas, or do we want it to remain a backward, feudal country?

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Fitna is an instrument for oppression, and not free speech

Posted by butalidnl on 21 March 2008

The impending release of Fitna, Geert Wilders’ anti-Koran movie, is pushing the discussion on what all this has to do with the freedom of expression.

The freedom of expression was cited by Danish newspapers, when they recently decided to reprint the controversial “Mohammed cartoons” (actually, they’re more caricatures than cartoons). The Danes said that they did this to protest the effective suppression of their press freedom. They said that Muslims should learn to take this kind of thing as part of how things are done in the modern world.

The same logic of freedom of expression is raised by Geert Wilders, the Dutch ultra-rightist, when he asserts that he has the right to attack Islam – especially now when he is about to broadcast his anti-Koran film, Fitna.

The debate on these inflammatory actions (both of the Danish media and Wilders) has recently boiled down to the conflict between the damage to national interest and press freedom. I am particularly disturbed that practically all parties here in the Netherlands seem to uphold Wilder’s freedom to express his views, even despite the extreme negative effects this would have on large groups of people. And that for them the main problem is not in terms of his right to express himself, but on the negative consequences for the country if he does so.

It is as if Dutch politicians declare that although they want to restrict Wilder’s “basic right”to express himself, their doing this is something like a “necessary evil” since this would hurt the country.

I think that they are missing a basic point in this. The freedom of expression, like other basic human rights, is part of a package. And this package of rights is intended to empower the weaker members of society, enable them to fully develop themselves as individuals and groups, and promote the smooth working of the whole society. From this framework, the exercise of the component rights becomes relative – both in a practical sense, and in principle. Take for example, the right to assembly – this needs to be curtailed in the case of rioting that causes bodily harm and destruction of property. And the freedom of religion is no excuse to deprive their members of health care. Such trade-offs between the various basic rights are principled decisions, and not merely practical.

In addition, rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, non-discrimination, etc., are particularly important in order to protect the weaker members of society. Thus, the freedom of expression would enable the oppressed, poor, or minority groups to be able to air their grievances, inform the rest of the population re these, and work to improve government policies towards them.

These rights are not there for the dominant and powerful – after all, they would be able to express themselves, assemble, practice their religion etc even without a special bill of rights. Human rights are thus the rights of the unempowered, the minorities etc.. If the powerful invoke such rights (especially in this case, the freedom of expression) in a way, and with the intention, of suppressing the rights of the weaker sections of society, this should be prohibited. And the basis of this prohibition should not merely be the fear of negative consequences, but rather on principle – the principle that human rights should be emancipatory and not oppressive.

Going back to Geert Wilders’ Fitna – this film should be banned on the basis that its purpose is to ban the Koran, which would be a grave infringement on the freedom of religion of muslims. There is no additional evidence needed to ban this film: Wilder’s declaration of his purpose for the film is enough; it is an attack on Islam as a religion. Wilders should not be given the opportunity to oppressive the muslim minority in the Netherlands, and help others to oppress muslims elsewhere.

Proceeding from the above line of reasoning, I believe that Wilders should be prohibited from continuing his campaign to ban the Koran.

* also see my other blog post: Anti-islam movie coming this April in the internet

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