Hunger and poverty limit our freedoms. And to be truly free means not only being able to express one’s self freely but also to be free from debilitating effects of chronic hunger and poverty.

This is the maiden issue of my regular Tuesday and Friday column for the Daily Tribune, and as luck would have it, it comes on the 120th anniversary of Philippine Independence. Given this coincidence, I decided to write about the freedoms we Filipinos enjoy, particularly the freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution and I have long been a staunch defender of the right of every Filipino to freely speak and express themselves.

Before I became a public servant – first as a member of the House of Representatives, and now as Presidential Spokesperson and President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s Adviser on Human Rights – I was an academic and a media rights lawyer. I argued cases before the Supreme Court and the UN Human Rights Committee for and in behalf of the Filipinos’ rights to freedom of expression. Indeed, in my professional career as a lawyer, I have fought for many unpopular causes in the name of free expression, and I believe my record speaks for itself.

I remember one memorable incident where I successfully defended a controversial art installation by the artist Mideo Cruz that many religious leaders have called an unforgivable blasphemy. I have defended bloggers, human rights defenders, and journalists here and abroad for their right to free expression.

I also took on the case of a student from the University of the Philippines in Baguio who was sued by one of the professors there for libel for supposedly writing about the latter in the lampoon issue of their school paper. I am happy to say that the student was found not guilty in 2016 and the libel charge was dismissed.

As a concerned citizen of this country, I recognize the problems that have arisen with the advent of “fake news.” However, I must reiterate what I have said in the past: Fake news is still part of the marketplace of ideas. And everyone, including a public servant, has the right to contribute to this marketplace. As I see it, both politicians and ordinary citizens need to see free expression as an ally in our collective goal for a stronger democracy; citizens should fight for their fellow citizens’ right to say a contrary opinion.

Indeed, we cannot have a democratic state if citizens are not able to freely discuss issues that concern them in a rational, informed, and peaceable manner.

One of the landmark cases on free speech is the American case of New York Times vs. Sullivan, which has been referenced by our Supreme Court multiple times. In that case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the publication of statements, including false ones. The Court quoted philosopher John Start Mill saying that:

“Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate since it brings about the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth produced by its collision with error.”

Free expression rests on this assumption: that we can all engage in a deliberative and rational discourse, to arrive at a moment of solidarity, or at least, of understanding, the conflicting views notwithstanding.

We must, therefore, leave it up to the people to use their intellect to discern the truth from falsehood. For the true test of truth is “the ability of a thought to be accepted as fact by the general public.”

As the President’s spokesperson, my job is to get all of us into a national conversation, when we can all get out of our social media bubbles or privileged positions, so we can really get down to the difficult but rewarding business of being a country that is humane, just, and progressive.

* * *

And while we’re on the topic of freedom, I would just like to reiterate the President’s commitment to reducing inequality and freeing all Filipinos from the twin shackles of hunger and poverty.

Hunger and poverty limit our freedoms. And to be truly free means not only being able to express one’s self freely but also to be free from debilitating effects of chronic hunger and poverty. For this reason, it is the target of the current administration to reduce poverty incidence from 21.6% in 2015 to 14% by 2022. This is equivalent to lifting some 6 million Filipinos out of poverty.

We are on the right track towards this goal. The First Quarter 2018 Social Weather Survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS), done on March 23-27, found that families who considered themselves poor decreased to a record low of 42%. Meanwhile, food-poor families also went down to a new record low of 29%. This is the first time for self-rated food poverty to be below 30%. The same survey also found that 1 out of 3 Filipino families escaped poverty.

In addressing the challenges of food security, no single intervention is enough. The Duterte administration is committed to improving agricultural infrastructure and facilities, support for mechanization, increasing investment in agricultural research and development, and the protection of land tenure and security.

Sec. Harry Roque is the spokesperson of President Rodrigo Duterte and Presidential Adviser for Human Rights.

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