COVID-19 Watch Editorial Cartoons Opinion

The power of criticizing government

Students who have been critical of the government are cast into a dichotomy: those willing to give up their personal freedoms into an illusion of the “common good”, and those who are demonized for speaking out.

By Ian Raphael Lopez
Graphics by Aynrand Galicia

COVID-19 stickerIt came with a shock to journalists when the editor-in-chief of the University of the East (UE) newspaper Dawn was forced to apologize on social media. According to reports, he was reported to the authorities by–you better believe it!–his high school teachers, including his campus journalism adviser. The reason is that they got offended over the editor’s remarks, criticizing President Duterte’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the apology, the editor was also threatened with a libel case if he continued to speak out on social media.

Then came a collective shudder among us.

But more so for this writer. Personally, I have been red-tagged in my junior high school. A teacher called me “brainwashed” by the Left. Other than that, I saw my teachers’ posts, directed to “Iskolars ng Bayan” who kept on complaining on social media and criticizing President Duterte. Frankly, I was disappointed but I let it pass. Our culture has inculcated a false sense of superiority on elders, even if what they say is totally out of tune with the times.

But the recent incident of someone being forced to a public apology on Facebook, for the simple reason of expressing his beliefs, is not only an insult to press freedom. It is a blatant disregard to everyone’s right to free speech. It can be observed that the episode is a manifestation of several ills in society, only made clearer by a pandemic that has disrupted our daily lives.

First, it has highlighted the sorry state of our public education. While academic freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, it has always been a melting pot of teachers’ personal viewpoints, inserted in the curriculum. While you may ask, “Isn’t that good for students?”, these viewpoints have all been representative of the oppressive status quo. It deprives students of critical thinking, a much-needed skill in these worrying times. It places students as yes-men of their future profit-minded bosses and political leaders.

Students who have been critical of the government are cast into a dichotomy: those willing to give up their personal freedoms into an illusion of the “common good”, and those who are demonized for speaking out. This phenomenon isn’t limited to students of UP. Believe me, I came from PUP and I’ve been red-tagged twice. Much more for those coming from private, religious universities and being branded as heretics, for just criticizing the government. In this state of affairs, the stifling of critical minds bloom. There thrives a culture of ostracizing those who believe in the importance of liberties and personal freedoms.

But can we blame those who cast the stone against those who criticize the government? No. After all, the system has bred a feeling of satisfaction when we submit to fascist leaders. I surmise this has been what the seven teachers must have thought while they were reporting UE Dawn’s editor-in-chief to the authorities. This is a false sense of satisfaction, of contributing to a semblance of the common good, but only does more good to fortify the oppressive system. But stripped out of all the junk, it only shows citizens submitting to a culture of fear: a fear of losing our personal lives, a fear of being hit back by state forces, a fear of come-what-may.

Fascist leaders, like President Duterte, have fostered this culture of fear the moment they have decided to run for office. And what better time to tighten its use during the time of a pandemic.

We can see this on Duterte’s inclination for a military-led response to the COVID-19 crisis. We can see this during Duterte’s threats to shoot those who threaten to disrupt order, disregarding the fact that those who cannot fend for themselves in these extraordinary times need a much more compassionate response from their President. Yes, he was compassionate, you might say. But he was only that for his cronies, for his friends. We are seeing a government completely inept in taking care of its citizens in the face of these unprecedented circumstances.

Part of the problem of stifling dissent, especially in times of crisis, is that we are left with no choice but to submit to mediocrity and oppression. A sigh of relief was the wave of negative public opinion regarding the government in the past few days. The administration has tried to put into jail residents who haven’t received assistance at all. They have also tried to prosecute the Vice President and the mayor of Pasig City for only doing their job.

The San Roque 21 is now being bailed out of jail; Leni Robredo and Vico Sotto have escaped possible legal brouhahas. But we must not settle on modest concessions from a government that has made a habit of being out of touch with the masses. This highlights the power of dissent, of criticism, of opposition. This is the power that these seven teachers from Nueva Ecija have tried to wrestle against; the power our government is hell-bent to steal from us.

By keeping a close watch on what’s happening, we recognize that we have a much more insurmountable enemy on the horizon: a system that enables all of these abuses to happen; a system that has failed us yet again.

We have to be ready to face it beyond our social media profiles and into the streets. Of course, we’re doing that after the lockdown; lest we get ourselves accused of inciting sedition. For the time being, we must not stop turning a critical eye to our leaders, especially when they’re watching over us. [P]

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