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Hate speech for free?

Hate speech for free?” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 24, 2017. 

The capacity for speech and the power it gives to express and receive ideas differentiate the human person from fellow creatures and privileges freedom of expression as a basic human right deserving of constitutional protection. But this fundamental right provides no license to shout “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.

Can purveyors of hate speech directed against people of different ethnic origin, language, religion, political persuasion, or sexual orientation escape culpability for the violence they provoke by invoking their right to free speech? Or should government subject them to the penalties prescribed for the provocateur in the movie theater? What if government agents themselves indulge in hate speech? One study claimed 65-77 percent more killings in Rwandan villages reached by a radio station urging the extermination of the Tutsis it dehumanized as “cockroaches.”

These questions, at a time of more violent civilizational clashes, demonstrate that much work remains for Ifex (International Freedom of Expression Exchange). Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Ifex convened in Montreal last week a panel of international resource speakers led by Agnes Callamard and Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash to explore the global challenges facing free speech and human rights.

Callamard served nine years as executive director of Article 19, the international NGO named after the article on freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her mission continues as director of Columbia University’s initiative for Global Freedom of Expression. But Callamard became better known in the Philippines as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, especially after critical comments on the Duterte war on drugs at a human rights conference in Manila last month triggered a pro-Duterte troll attack.

Filipinos should know more about Professor Ash and his recent book, “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.” Ash argues that globalizing forces have made critically urgent a global consensus on the principles to govern the exercise of this right, as immigration constructs increasingly more physically connected but more culturally diverse communities. More people now live, not in small homogenous villages, but in global megacities for which Ash has coined the term “cosmopolis.”

Over 50 percent of Toronto’s population are foreign-born (Filipinos make up the third largest immigrant group.) The third most spoken foreign language in Montreal is Arabic.

In the cosmopolis, ethnically distinct communities, empowered by different languages and comforted by different deities, share common national frontiers and submit to a common political governance system. By collapsing the boundaries of both space and time, the internet has made it possible for immigrants to maintain their connections to the homeland and preserve their cultural identity, thus sharpening and strengthening the differences between them and their host communities.

Some governments would restrain public discussion and debate over religious or racial issues that have historically provoked protracted, violent conflict. But the attempt in the United States to kill legislators, apparently because they belonged to the Republican Party, demonstrates how political color and identities can produce as much violence as skin color and ethnic identities.

Despite the dangers posed by the diversity in the cosmopolis, selectively suppressing dialogue on contentious issues will not promote its long-term health and survival. Ash argues that all human beings, whatever their community, must be free and able to express themselves and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.” The majority of the world’s countries that have signed on to Article 19 should similarly respond to the question of “how free should speech be.”

But the effective practice of Article 19 depends also on the response to a second question: “how free speech should be.” How should people exercise the right of free speech? The conduct and the quality of the political discourse, in social media and among government leaders, can raise or reduce the risk of partisan violence. The right of free speech does not demand a duty to be crudely, discreditably disagreeable.

The leaders of the cosmopolis must model the practice of vigorous disagreement without vicious offensiveness. #

How many Filipino druggies?

How many Filipino druggies?” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 27, 2017.

According to the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), 1.8 million in 2015. “Wrong,” pronounced President Duterte, who had been saying “4 million” even before his election, and summarily sacked DDB Chair Benjamin Reyes without explaining why 4 million was the correct number.

Actually, according to Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Director General Isidro Lapeña, the real number is 4.7 million. This estimate was helpful to the President, but provoked the inevitable question: How did the number rise over two and a half times during a year when the Duterte war on drugs was driving the surrender of over a million drug abusers and killing off thousands of them?

Through the letter of Deputy Director General Ricardo Quinto, PDEA ventured to explain the “exact science” behind its figures. It pointed out that DDB based its estimate on a nationwide survey of 5,000 respondents 10-69 years old. In contrast, PDEA relied on the Philippine National Police’s “Oplan Tokhang” visits to nearly 7.8 million households, about 34 percent of the total number nationwide.

Tokhang compelled the surrender of about 1.27 million “drug personalities,” or at least one drug user/pusher in 16 percent of the households visited. The large number of households covered by the PNP and the resulting harvest of surrenders apparently gave PDEA the confidence to project from the Tokhang sample the incidence of drug abuse nationwide at 4.7 million.

How valid is the conclusion that the drug abuse in the country mirrors the proportions discovered among the Tokhang households? The validity depends on how well the Tokhang sample represents the larger population. More critical than sample size is the rigor of the random selection process, which ensures that the sample and the findings from it are representative of the larger community. Were the Tokhang households selected at random, so that any household in the country had an equal chance of being chosen?

Much controversy has surrounded the issue of how households were selected for inclusion in the Tokhang visits and what registration in the “surrender” list means. What is clear is that the PDEA sample was not random and not representative. The target Tokhang households were apparently already suspected of harboring drug addicts. Stressing the accuracy of its information, PDEA noted that those who surrendered “have actual faces and profiles stored in the PNP’s databases.”

These databases may serve legitimate police purposes, but the Tokhang sample cannot provide a scientific basis for estimating nationwide drug addiction. A projection of the cancer incidence in the Philippines would be similarly flawed if we selected the respondents only from the population of hospital patients.

Other unsupported PDEA statements are unhelpful, such as the claim that 47 percent of Philippine barangays are “affected” by illegal drugs. What does “affect” mean and how do we measure its intensity? The failure of government authorities to distinguish between drug user, addict and pusher is also problematic. There are different levels of addiction, and the laws themselves make a distinction between using and trafficking drugs. Without a clarification of these terms, drug addiction numbers will remain questionable.

We need more explanation of the numbers from DDB, President Duterte and PDEA. For an issue with life-and-death implications, this is hardly academic nitpicking. A credible estimate of gross numbers is critical to the validation of the Duterte war on drugs. Is the country truly a narco-state in the grip of an existential drug crisis? Experts agree that we face a drug problem but nowhere near the scale confronting countries commonly branded narco-states.

Our response to the drug problem must be proportional to its scale, lest the cure inflict more damage than the disease. The same principle should apply to the declaration of martial law throughout Mindanao.

PDEA deserves credit for declaring its willingness to “submit to any Senate or congressional probe … to clarify the ‘real’ statistics.” We urgently need this clarification to begin a sober assessment of the rationale, context and consequences of the Duterte war on drugs.

Good news, bad news

Good news, bad news” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 6, 2017. 

The basic education budget more than doubled in real terms, from roughly P152 billion to P350 billion, in 2005-2014. But it remains insufficient for what the system needs and, as a share of GNP, amounts to less than what Laos and Cambodia spend (roughly 2 percent vs. 2.4 percent). Many schools do not get the budget they should receive, nor do they always spend what they get on the right things.

The Department of Education brought down the average Student/Teacher Ratio (STR) to 36:1 in grade school, and 27:1 in high school. But these levels are still below the average STR in lower-middle-income countries (31:1 in elementary and 16:1 in high school). Inefficient distribution of teachers, moreover, left many elementary schools with fewer (29 percent) or more (52 percent) teachers than DepEd guidelines require for the number of students enrolled.

Starting salary of teachers has improved to 150 percent of per capita GDP, as against 50 percent in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Teachers rated very highly in their command of curriculum subjects, a sign of self-confidence. But the average teacher could answer correctly less than half of the questions on a test that covered subject matter knowledge.

These observations come from a study of public basic education study supported by the Australia-World Bank Philippines Development Trust Fund and launched at the Asian Institute of Management last week. The research gives DepEd’s new leadership a baseline from which to measure its own progress in addressing unresolved problems that it now owns.

Pairing positive and negative results is not intended to devalue the genuine achievements of the previous DepEd leadership, nor to discount the difficulty of the issues that the new administration and probably its successor must address. While the AusAid/World Bank study has helpfully identified key problem areas and suggested possible solutions, their successful implementation often requires the actions of other agencies.

The transfer of teachers from schools with a surplus to those with a shortage would benefit students and save DepEd P3.8 billion annually. But transfers across divisions or regions require the approval of the Department of Budget and Management. To encourage teachers to accept redeployment to another area, DepEd would probably need to provide incentives, which would also require DBM approval.

Beyond the efficient allocation of teacher supply is the improvement of teacher job performance. Unless we can nurture a core of competent and motivated teachers, we cannot reasonably expect a major breakthrough in student learning outcomes.

Some 75 percent of DepED teachers attend in-service training programs it provides, a rate comparable to that in high-income countries. But 40 percent of the teachers want the DepEd to do a better job by extending program duration (now about five days) and ensuring their quality and relevance. Most training programs are based on decisions made at central and division offices, with the school principals seldom consulted on what their teachers need.

A more strategic intervention to raise teacher competence must come at the level of the colleges and universities offering education degrees. But it is the Commission on Higher Education, not DepEd, that oversees the institutions producing the teachers. Closer coordination between the two agencies is necessary to address a distressing conclusion of the AusAid/World Bank study: the lack of correlation between teacher credentials and performance.

Teachers with more experience and with postgraduate degrees did not perform better in the test than those without these advantages. This raises questions on the state of our teacher education programs that rank first or second place in the number of students they enroll. A rigorous assessment of the content and process of these programs would advance the AusAid/World Bank study, whose main concern is the allocation and use of resources, toward the issue of learning outcomes and their key drivers.

Increasing resources is necessary but not sufficient to raise education quality. The study’s focus on basic education is well placed. But reform initiatives to meet the quality and equity goals of basic education requires intervention beyond DepEd boundaries.

Pardon for the Albuera 19?

Pardon for the Albuera 19” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 1, 2017. Photo by PNP-PIO

Two events last week raised extrajudicial killing (EJK) as an urgent concern for our political leaders and the public. No April Fool’s joke.

On March 27, PNP Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa launched his personal drive to “disprove” claims of 7,000 EJKs. On March 29 in Oriental Mindoro, Du30 said he would advise the policemen charged with the killing of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa to plead guilty, and then grant them absolute pardon.

The government has tried various ways to counter claims about EJKs in the country. One attempt was to redefine it away. Assistant Interior Secretary Epimaco Densing III argued that, without a death penalty, there is no judicial killing: “If a country has no judicial killing, there’s no extrajudicial killing.” Another approach was to decline the search for evidence of its existence.

Whistle-blowers Edgar Matobato and Arturo Lascañas offered testimony on EJKs based on personal knowledge, under oath and against self-interest. Detecting mistakes in details, the Senate inquiry dismissed Matobato’s veracity; EJK victims, for instance, were wrapped in “packaging,” and not “masking,” tape, as he had claimed. But masking tape was the common generic term in the region, the way Colgate once stood for toothpaste.

Senators deemed Lascañas untrustworthy. He had fooled them once in denying that “death squads” operated in Davao; they refused to be fooled a second time. As appropriate reflection for Holy Week, one wonders if our bible-thumpers in the Senate would disqualify Peter as a witness because he thrice lied knowing Christ.

Dela Rosa took a slightly different tack. That over 7,000 killings have taken place under Du30’s watch was not really in dispute. The controversy was over the classification of these killings. Which ones were EJK?

From Dela Rosa’s perspective, none of them. At a Camp Crame briefing, he asked the media to “forget about EJK, don’t use that term,” challenging them to cite any instance when the PNP used it. For him, EJK meant “state-sponsored killing.” But a meaningful response to EJK allegations must take the term as it is generally understood.

The essential element of EJK is not state-sponsorship but the participation of state security forces or their agents in the killing of any person without sanction of a judicial or legal process. Rogue police can commit EJK. Both Dela Rosa and Du30 have publicly denounced widespread police corruption that required the suspension of “Tokhang” operations.

To assert that the government has not ordered, has opposed and has punished EJK is not sufficient. International law binds states to “take effective action to prevent, combat and eliminate [EJK] … in all its forms and manifestations.”

As Dela Rosa intended, the criterion of state sponsorship for EJK sets a high bar for proof. But Du30 has undermined his intent by intervening in the case that comes closest to meeting the standard: the killing of Albuera Mayor Espinosa. In the dark of dawn, avoiding security cameras and keeping eyewitnesses at bay, 19 police agents, including high-ranking officers, killed Espinosa in his jail cell. A confessed drug criminal and father of a drug lord, Espinosa had surrendered to Dela Rosa, believing that he would be safe in prison.

The NBI and several senators concluded that Espinosa’s death was a “rubout.” No official, written order for the Espinosa killing has yet surfaced. But the careful planning and the involvement of so many PNP and state agents give the case the odor of a premeditated state operation. Du30’s insistence from the beginning that the killing was justified and that he would give them absolute pardon may supply the final stamp of state sponsorship of murder.

Many may believe that Espinosa deserved to die because he was a drug-addict bastard. But Du30 has a rather broad list of bastards he considers deserving of death. Who is to say who will land on that list?

Senators Antonio Trillanes, Panfilo Lacson, Grace Poe and Bam Aquino have opposed Du30’s plan, which would effectively transform the police into a private presidential force vested with impunity. They need the support of their colleagues in the government and of the public. #####

Surrender in Panatag?

(Photo: Rene Lumawag/Presidential Photo/PCOO)

Bullies relying on force to achieve their goals become helpless before a bigger bully. In their drug war, state forces outnumber and outgun drug users from poor, informal settler communities, even when they allegedly offer resistance. But confronting a bigger, better-armed Chinese navy?

No one expects or wants President Duterte to declare war against the People’s Republic of China. But, as Justice Antonio Carpio has warned, he should avoid any act or statement that even implicitly waives Philippine rights to territory in the West Philippine Sea. The government can also file a protest against Chinese activities that compromise these rights.

Du30 does not need to decide to go to war against China. But he should be considering his options should the PRC “declare war” against the Philippines. Not by a formal declaration of hostilities, but by a silent, creeping invasion of Philippine waters.

Unfortunately, the public pronouncements of the Duterte Government have arguably encouraged the PRC strategy: soft words, big stick, continuing encroachment. Having demonstrated little regard for enforcing the rule of law at home, it is not surprising that Du30 has attached little value to international law and international public opinion in mobilizing moral and diplomatic support for Davids fighting Goliaths.  

Last July, the Hague International Court of Arbitration unanimously rejected China’s claims of historic rights over a wide swath of the South China Seas bounded by its unilaterally-imposed nine-dash-line. The Court also ruled that:

  1. The Spratly reclamation projects undertaken by China were illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea;
  2. These projects had caused severe environmental damage to the coral reef environment, in violation of its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems;
  3. Chinese fishermen were exploiting endangered species on a substantial scale;
  4. Chinese ships were violating the law in physically obstructing Philippine vessels sailing in the area.

Rather than celebrate the Court’s landmark decision, the government appeared embarrassed by it. The Duterte Administration did not demonstrate any initiative to consider how the country could build on this legal victory to strengthen its position with China in future negotiations.  

It might have used the high moral and legal ground given by the Hague ruling to accelerate ASEAN agreement on a common code of conduct based on international law to govern the resolution of maritime disputes. It might have explored with UNCLOS signatories how best to reinforce respect for international covenants.

While carefully avoiding causing China to lose face, it has been unconcerned about disrespecting traditional allies, with whom it shares mutual security interests. The Du30 Administration has apparently decided that pivoting to China and appeasement is preferable to exploring defensive preparations with allies. And now, China is moving on Panatag Shoal and even beyond the West Philippine Seas to survey Benham Rise, acknowledged as part of the Philippine continental shelf on our eastern borders.

Du30 hopes that playing nice will bring in billions of Chinese investments. But investors will not be giving grants; they will be expecting returns on their funds. And, in any case, would the Constitution sanction a quid pro quo, allowing the government to barter Philippine territorial patrimony for Chinese money?#####

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