Friday 2 February 2018

El corazón de la democracia oriental

Today is Constitution Day in the Philippines. The road to the establishment of the constitution was a rough one, to say the least. Filipinos suffered the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos for two decades, including ten years of martial law. It took the assassination of Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. to inspire a national movement against Marcos and one heck of a strong woman, Ninoy's wife Corazon, to throw Marcos out. What a time it must have been, the end of February 1986, after Marcos had claimed victory in a sham of an election, when 2 million Filipinos took to the streets in the People Power Revolution, wearing yellow ribbons and pining for democracy and freedom.

They got it. The "Mother of Asian Democracy" oversaw the promulgation of the Constitution, which limited the powers of the presidency and reestablished the bicameral Congress. Corzaon was true to her name (Spanish for "heart"), working for human rights and the peace process with communist insurgents and Islamic secessionists. She focused on improving the economy through market-oriented reform and socially responsible enterprise, a far cry from the corruption and extravagance of the Marcos regime.

What a woman! She was awarded Liberty International's Prize for Freedom in 1987 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award (Asia's version of the Nobel) in 1998, and a statue of her stands proudly in Manila next to her husband.

But she must be frowning now, right there in the heart of Manila, el corazon de la perla del oriente.

Why did the Philippines elect a bloodthirsty murderer who jokes about rape, hates Jews, and despises the Constitution that is celebrated on this day? And do the people still support him? Recent polls have show his popularity slipping as people remember unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and corruption are still rampant and ignored in his obsession with the so-called "Drug War." Thousands of Filipinos rallied last September against 'rising tyranny.'

But you wouldn't know it from social media, thanks to the new phenomenon of "opinion-shaping," where governments use social media to influence elections, drive agendas, inflate support, and counter critics. At least 30 countries are guilty of employing armies of these opinion shapers, according to the latest Freedom on the Net report from the Washington-based NGO Freedom house. In the Philippines, the "keyboard army" is paid a reportedly $10 USD per day to operate fake social media accounts that support Duterte's agenda and his drug war, which has, by some estimates, resulted in the deaths of more than 14,000 people. Regimes use the false perception that most citizens support them to justify crackdowns on human rights and silence opposition. While Philippines still enjoys "free" status in terms of net freedom, its score dropped (which, sadly, is consistent with much of the world.)

Last week, the investigative reporting site Rappler had its operating license revoked for supposedly violating constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of media. Duterte called Rappler a "fake news" outlet on Tuesday (the "lugenpresse" of the digital age.) Rappler has published a series of reports on the Duterte regime's strategy to "weaponize the internet" by paying bloggers and social media users to be anger-arousing trolls. In one instance, one of these trolls cloned a Facebook page of an anti-Duterte activist and posted a fake assassination plot. The real owner of the page, noted human rights defender Willyn Trabajador, now faces prosecution under the Cybercrime Law, a result predicted by human rights organizations when the law was passed in 2012. 

It remains to be seen whether or not the Philippines Constitution is strong enough to withstand the subtle and not-so-subtle hits it is taking under the Duterte regime. So far, it is presenting itself as a formidable defender of democracy in the Philippines. But we must keep a close eye on the situation and call out the abuses of Duterte's making. A generation too young to remember the Marcos years must learn from history, lest it be repeated.

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