What role does freedom of speech play in a time like this? We talk to the respected lawyer and professor Katrina Legarda, and to political journalist-cum-author Richard Heydarian.

Mid-December last year, a series of screenshots containing warnings on the emergence of a SARS-like disease in Wuhan caught the attention of the entire world. Many had not thought much of it back then since the Republic of China dismissed it as rumour and the World Health Organization (WHO) has made no official statement yet. Though journalists from around the globe flocked to Wuhan like birds hunting for prey, they had failed to find anything conclusive.

It wasn’t until 31 December 2019 when China informed the WHO on the mysterious pneumonia-ridden patients, over a month after some Wuhan residents started exhibiting symptoms. By then the number of infected patients has ballooned to over 200 individuals. On the following days, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau summoned the eight whistleblowers — all doctors, for spreading “rumours” and had them denounce their statements online.

"The doctor’s insistence on telling the truth turned him into a folk hero in a country that prizes secrecy and crushes dissent. And it was only after the doctor’s death and widespread Chinese fury did the Chinese authorities concede that the doctor and the others who were arrested, should not have been censured," prominent lawyer and women's right advocate Atty. Katrina Legarda says.

Four months later, here we are, battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Had we learned about this sooner, could the world have been more prepared? 

“This would not have, and has not, happened in democracies, where there are checks and balances as well as free, independent media,” author and international journalist Richard Heydarian shares. After all, freedom of speech encourages a discourse of ideas, arguments, which at the bottom line, encourages the rise of a polished thought.

"What history teaches us is that freedom is not only desirable as an ideal. It is also essential for economic development and advancement of mankind. Rapid scientific advancement and industrialisation in the West and in large parts of Asia and the developing world, over the centuries, would not have been possible in absence of openness to the spirit of inquiry, skepticism, and rational debate," Heydarian adds.

In the Philippines, we turn to bayanihan, a centuries-long tradition of helping hand-in-hand whenever we are struck by a calamity. Collectively, our energies became much focused on social media — a platform where we can exercise both free speech and social distancing. For one, free speech has proven itself a useful tool in garnering donations. It allowed participation in fund drives; the biggest one arguably being the one supported by The Office of The Vice President, which has amassed more than PHP 50 million.  This allowed for the purchase of hundreds of thousands of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) sets, as well as thousands of packed food meals for frontliners. Much of our stranded kababayans were also given help thanks to frequent shares on Facebook Groups, which enabled local communities to reach out to them. Tweaks and changes on the Enhanced Community Quarantine have also been put to place thanks to frequent trends in social media, especially the hashtag, #MassTesting. Local Government Units were also able to exchange successful campaigns such as mobile palengkes, lifting store window hours, alternate grocery schedules, and many more through the clamour of their constituents.

Free speech however can be seen as a double-edged sword, with the current stay-at-home rallies in the US as an example. Shocking as it may seem, hundreds of Americans in different states are flocking to the streets without any protective gear, disobeying stay-at-home orders and leaving themselves vulnerable to the highly contagious disease. Protesters in Michigan even resorted to blocking an ambulance on its way to the hospital. Ultimately, this stems from the fear of losing income and infringement of rights. Although free speech sets the stage for further discussion, it can also create a rift between two opposing forces — in this instance, the protesters and the local government. 

In a paper by American philosopher and professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School Brian Leiter (2016), he argues that free speech "can be benign or harmful, constructive, or pernicious" depending on usage. He further explains that free speech shouldn't be treated as an inherently good thing, and that not all speech equally holds an "intrinsic value". 

The line between right and wrong usage of freedom of speech is truly a blurred one. But ultimately, it is not put in place simply to give bigots a chance to express their ideas. Rather, it is an opportunity to challenge outdated ideas by laying down facts and using moral reasoning. Unfortunately, censorship, when used in this context, doesn’t allow room for further explanation and justification — all it does is suppress an idea.

I think many forget the fact that all our contemporary fundamental rights — including the freedom of speech, religion and assembly — are the product of a centuries-old struggle by countless men and women, who valiantly fought against dogma and despotism. Galileo came dangerously close to execution for pointing out, through scientific method, that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.
Richard Heydarian

On the other hand, abuse of free speech does not go unchecked either as our laws ensure that this right is responsibly exercised. Atty. Legarda further explains:

“Freedom of speech is balanced by other articles in the Bill of Rights. You cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property ‘without due process of law,’ – so you can lose your liberty – but there has to be some trial. You have the right to be secure in your homes but, you can be searched or arrested should a warrant be issued. A right of privacy is protected for communication and correspondence – but this right to privacy can be lifted 'upon lawful order of the court'.”

And although we have extensive guidelines on the lawfulness of free speech, the responsibility ultimately boils down to us, to gatekeep ourselves from spreading false information as well as filter those that we ingest from different sources, more importantly, online.

As a reminder for everyone, Atty. Legarda shares: “Do not lie. Do not create panic. Do not post any 'information' which you have not checked against credible sources.”


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