Deputy Speaker: Proposed free speech clause amendment came from Palace

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 18 2018 05:10 PM | Updated as of Jan 18 2018 05:14 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte is seen in this file photo facing the media in a press conference in Davao City in late May 2016, when he was still President-elect. Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA - The proposal to amend the Bill of Rights to mandate the "responsible" use of free speech came from a committee under the Office of the President, Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro said Thursday.

"It (proposed amendment) did not come from the subcommittee. It was from the Presidential Committee on Human Rights secretariat," Castro said in an interview on ANC's Early Edition.

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Castro made headlines on Tuesday after he recommended to insert the phrase "responsible exercise" in Section 4 of the Bill of Rights, which reads: “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances." 

"This time, if you go around, there is so much abuse of this freedom. They think it is unrestrained. Therefore, we propose the insertion of that phrase," Castro said during the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments' discussions on charter change earlier this week.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque did not confirm if it was indeed the executive branch that pushed for the constitutional amendment, which has been viewed as an attempt to curtail freedom of speech and the press.

"I cannot confirm that because it certainly did not come from my office," Roque said in a press conference in Albay.

ABS-CBN News tried to get in touch with the Presidential Committee on Human Rights about the issue but has yet to receive a response.

'Danger' of inserting the phrase

Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said inserting the word "responsible" to the free speech clause in the Constitution is "incompatible with our current jurisprudence and with the idea of freedom of speech and of the press."

"The danger of inserting the word responsible is you're giving the state the power to define what is responsibility. There is an inherent conflict there because if the government gets to define what is responsible speech, then they have the basic control over the amount of criticism they can get," Hilbay told ANC's Early Edition.

"The function of the media is to put critical light on public officials, the way they conduct themselves, the way they conduct public functions. It doesn't go the other way around," he said.

Hilbay, who teaches constitutional law at the University of the Philippines, said the proposed insertion is unnecessary as there are enough laws to police possible abuses in the right to free speech.

"There's already an inherent restraint on our freedom such as libel laws at the level of the state and, at the level of the person, your family, friends, or community may call you out for what you say," Hilbay said.

Duterte's tirades vs the media

The proposal to amend the free speech clause was raised amid President Rodrigo Duterte's testy relations with the media. 

Earlier, he slammed journalists for allegedly favoring the "interest of oligarchs" and for purportedly misreporting his policies such as the bloody war on drugs and the extension of martial law in Mindanao.

Despite cursing at media organizations, Duterte said he does not detest critical reporting.

“Sanay na ako d'yan,” he told reporters Tuesday, as he clarified he had nothing to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) revocation of the incorporation papers of news site Rappler. 

He said media outfits should not be onion-skinned if the government criticizes them for their reporting.

“Why should you complain if I’m critical against the media? Are you not critical of me?” the President said. 

Rappler cried harassment over the SEC order on Monday, which revoked its incorporation papers for allegedly allowing foreign entities to exercise control over the news portal.

Last year, Duterte threatened to block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN which expires in 2020, after accusing the company of accepting money for a campaign ad that did not air before the May 9, 2016 polls, and then failing to return the money. 

Duterte also attacked the Philippine Daily Inquirer for issuing stinging editorials against him and said he would fight the Inquirer's owners over the Mile Long property in Makati City. 

In July, the Prieto family announced it was in talks with tycoon Ramon Ang for the sale of the influential newspaper and in August vacated the Mile Long property after a Makati court acted on a case filed by the government.