PASSION FOR REASON: Human rights film was initially rated X?

By Raul Pangalangan
Last updated 01:21am (Mla time) 10/05/2007

MANILA, Philippines — Joseph Estrada’s biographical documentary “Ang Mabuhay para sa Masa” was rated X last year because the part about Edsa People Power II tended to “incit[e] political rebellion,” but the nation was not indignant. The censors took umbrage at the closing line: “Nalalapit na ang bagong umaga dahil sa lakas ng puwersa ng masa at muli nang babangon.” [“A new day is dawning because of the power of the masses and they will rise again.”]

Now the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), thus emboldened, has just tried to block a human rights film, because it is “unfair and one-sided [and] undermined [the people’s] faith and confidence” in our government, and we are aghast. We have been warned: “As thou hast sown, so shall thou reap.”

Just last week, I lamented the racist outburst by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago on the Senate floor, yet, even as the senator apologized, some readers wrote to defend the Filipino’s ingrained anti-Chinese bigotry. Barely one week later, we are all up in arms over a scene from a US TV show, where a lead character, talking to a doctor, said: “Okay, before we go any further, can I check those diplomas? Because I would just like to make sure they’re not from some med school in the Philippines.” (If all the US-based Filipino doctors and nurses went on strike, won’t their health system go haywire? I wonder.)

I didn’t realize we would have our dose of poetic justice so swiftly. I had assumed that retribution would come at the glacial pace of Philippine courts. But in the classic Filipino witticism of my generation, “Bullet day, they will giant us.”

I didn’t get to see the 13 independent short films depicting our human rights situation during its short run. Apparently, the MTRCB initially rated them “X.” (The gradations are, from mildest to wildest: G or GP — General patronage; PG-13 — Parental guidance for children under 13; R-13 or R-18 — Strictly for persons over the specified age; and X — Not for public viewing.) As of this writing, the MTRCB has mercifully revised its position and released the film for a wider R-13 audience.

Collectively entitled “Rights,” the film series apparently consists of clips as short as regular TV commercials, independently produced, and shows disappearances and scenes of torture. The killings are no fabrication. Government and UN fact-finders have all confirmed them, and they have warranted action, no less, from the Supreme Court.

The films, reports say, had none of the usual excuse for censorship, namely, obscenity. Remember “Kapit sa Patalim,” a socially relevant Lino Brocka film for which the censors were haled all the way to the Supreme Court during the twilight years of the Ferdinand Marcos era? The government tried to suppress it by citing nudity in the depiction of bar girls. A few years ago, in a bizarre move, the censors gave an R rating to “Schindler’s List” because, and this gets even sicker, it showed naked bodies inside the gas chambers!

Party-list Rep. Crispin Beltran hit the nail right on the head: “It’s not [for the MTRCB] to judge the [film’s] content on whether or not it undermines the public’s faith and confidence in the government. It will be up to the audience to decide that.”

Beltran has seized the heart of the doctrine allowing only the “content-neutral” regulation of speech. Government may not regulate speech on the basis of its message, but only on its overall effect that, in this case, would pose a “clear and present danger.” In other words, in our constitutional order, there can never be such a thing as a government-sanctioned truth — a politically approved official version that we are all bound to accept. “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

It is a rejection of what US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas called the “suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought.”

That is why when the MTRCB justifies its X rating by saying that “Rights” was “unfair and one-sided,” its decision was content-based, but it would scarcely give me any comfort if the MTRCB reverses itself by saying that it was fair and objective after all. Whether speech is biased or balanced is for the audience, not any government board, to decide.

The sole question before any government agency should be whether the danger posed by the speech is so imminent that it is “dangerous to leave the correction of evil counsels to time.” The classic formulation was made by Holmes: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” I understand that the MTRCB eventually found its way and applied the clear and present danger test.

My real worry is not about government behaving badly. It is about a passive people immobilized by political correctness and unwilling to advance “freedom for the thought that we hate.”

My other concern is that we have already sent a chilling effect on young and independent film-makers, who may now shy away from politically sensitive topics. Worse, it may have scared away film producers and potential investors.

The libertarian Douglas warned us to be alert to these slow encroachments on our liberties. “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there’s a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

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