Speaking truth to power is a moral obligation

by Fr. Shay Cullen

| Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Truth-telling is the work of journalists, writers, and broadcasters and the duty of church leaders above all. Telling and writing the truth about wrong-doing, injustice, exploitation, and abuse is, above all, the only way to bring the rule of law and respect for human rights and civilization to a nation, expectantly one that claims to be democratic, free and open to the truth.

In the Philippines, we are far from that goal, as shown by the recent assassination of journalist Percival Mabasa, 63, who was shot dead with two bullets to the head while in his car at Las Pinas in Metro Manila. He was a brave, outspoken radio journalist who may have angered some politicians with his allegations of wrongdoing.

His radio broadcast name was Percy Lapid. No one has been arrested for the fatal shooting, and police are looking into the assassination. An official of the Marcos government Hubert Guevara, senior deputy executive secretary, has been tasked to pursue an investigation following a national outcry demanding justice.

On September 18 last, radio broadcaster Renato Blanco was stabbed to death in Negros Oriental in the Central Philippines, adding to the toll of 187 murdered and assassinated Filipino journalists in the past 35 years, according to Reporters without Borders. In one mass killing alone, on 23 November 2009, as many as 32 reporters and writers were killed in a massacre together with followers of a politician in Mindanao. The Philippines is among the most dangerous places to be a journalist besides war zones.

The voices of truth that challenge the powers that rule are facing numerous court cases under the harsh cyber-libel law that is said to curb and limit free speech. The internationally renowned Time Magazine front cover journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, the founder of online news agency Rappler, and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. had their appeal rejected and conviction of libel upheld by the Court of Appeals last 10 October 2022. They are facing serious jail time.

“The voices of truth that challenge the powers that rule are facing numerous court cases under the harsh cyber-libel law that is said to curb and limit free speech.”

The Court of Appeals justices, in their 16-page decision rejecting the motion for reconsideration of the conviction, said: “In conclusion, it [is] worthy and relevant to point out that the conviction of the accused-appellants for the crime of cyber-libel punishable under the Cybercrime Law is not geared towards the curtailment of the freedom of speech, or to produce a seemingly chilling effect on the users of cyberspace that would possibly hinder free speech.”

In fact, the court said, the purpose of the law is to “safeguard the right of free speech, and to curb, if not totally prevent, the reckless and unlawful use of the computer systems as a means of committing the traditional criminal offenses….”

In her response to the decision, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa, a dual U.S.-Filipino citizen, said, ‘The ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against me and Rappler continues, and the Philippines legal system is not doing enough to stop it.’

Last July 14, when the conviction was first handed down, Irene Khan, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said:

“The criminalization of journalists for libel impedes public interest reporting and is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression,” she said, as posted on the UN human rights commission’s website. “Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed,” she added.

Maria Ressa, a strong, determined, and brave journalist, has a reputation for stating the facts and truth-telling, says that truth-telling and stating the facts are at the heart of true reporting and journalism. Through her lawyers, she said that the decision was expected while disappointing. The same judges that convicted her were the same that rejected her appeal for reconsideration. She will continue her fight for justice and appeal to the Supreme Court.

The media practitioners in the Philippines and in many countries around the world where the government has enacted laws that limit the freedom of speech are naturally afraid and scared to challenge and criticize the ruling powers openly. Many voices that should be prophetic, not silent, not intimidated, and not afraid are sadly not very prophetic and are very much silent.

But some give the lead and example of outstanding defenders of truth, human rights, and human dignity. Maria Ressa is one of those courageous journalists who have defended human rights, and so, is jailed rights activist Ales Bialiatski, one of the winners of this year’s Peace Prize. This is what the Nobel Peace Prize website has to say for this year’s winners:

“The 2022 Peace Prize is awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties. The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticism power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power. Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

Ales Bialiatski is the founder of the right organization Viasna or “spring” in 1996. When he challenged the corrupt regime, he was jailed in 2011. In 2021, he was detained again without charge. Members of his group Viasna are also jailed. That’s what human rights defenders and truth tellers get when they speak out. The group of “UN Experts” has made a statement in their support:

“There is a serious accountability gap for gross violations of human rights law in Belarus, and we welcome the solidarity of the international community and all efforts based on international law to persist in seeking justice,” the experts said.

“That example is what empowers the truth-teller and brave journalists and human rights defenders. They free the truth, and the truth will free them.”

The UN experts have raised concerns about Bialiatski’s arbitrary detention since 14 July 2021, calling it part of an unfolding policy to silence human rights defenders and eradicate the civic space in Belarus. We hope and pray it never comes to that in the Philippines if it has not already.

When journalists and rights defenders face possible assassination and imprisonment for speaking the truth to power and exposing injustice and violations, the powerful institutions must take a stand and speak out to challenge injustice and abuse, to stand by the victims of injustice and exploitation, and denounce abuse and uphold human rights and dignity.

Surely, the bishops can speak out without fear like Pope Francis does so frequently, following the example of Jesus of Nazareth. He continually challenged and confronted the hypocrisy and the oppression of the poor by the Pharisees and was executed for telling them that only the truth would set them free from the power of evil and sin. That example is what empowers the truth-teller and brave journalists and human rights defenders. They free the truth, and the truth will free them.

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