Nearly 8 years ago on September 30, 2010, Carlos Celdran, a Philippine artist, tour guide and activist, staged a protest at the Manila Cathedral. He dressed up like Jose Rizal and held a placard with the word “DAMASO” – referencing the corrupt and abusive priest, Padre Damaso, in Rizal’s revolutionary novel Noli Me Tangere. Before being ushered out by security, Carlos shouted at the bishops present at an ecumenical meeting to stop getting involved in politics. This was the height of the fight to pass the Reproductive Health Bill, and Carlos was protesting the attempts of the church to vilify the bill and pressure politicians and the public to publicly oppose it. During this time, every wedding, baptism and funeral I attended included a tirade against the RH Bill.
Carlos was arrested that afternoon and charged with Article 133, a Spanish-era law against “offending religious feelings”. In 2013, Carlos was found guilty. He appealed the ruling and in 2015 the Court of Appeals upheld the sentence. Carlos once again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court of the Philippines. Last Monday, August 6, the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict of the Court of Appeals, saying they agreed that Carlos “meant to mock, insult, and ridicule those clergy whose beliefs and principles were diametrically opposed to his own.” Now Carlos is awaiting his sentence, which can range from 2 months and 21 days at a minimum and one year, one month and 11 days at a maximum.
Jailing Carlos sends a chilling message against the right of freedom of speech. In fact, in 2013 the Senate deliberated on repealing Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code because of the fact that it could curtail free speech. Then Solicitor General Florin Hilbay made the case for why Article 133 is unconstitutional, writing, “The important question in Celdran’s case is not whether he is guilty of offending religious feelings; it is whether Article 133 is constitutional in the first place or compatible with nonestablishment and free speech rights. In other words, the issue is: Does the government have the authority to jail people for exercising their right to speak in a way that offends the feelings of the faithful? No.”
The fact that Carlos could spend time in jail for telling bishops to stay out of politics (especially when our country does legally have the separation of church and state), is the height of hypocrisy given how our current President acts.
President Duterte is routinely critical of the Catholic church. He famously cursed Pope Francis when the Pope’s visit to the Philippines caused huge traffic problems. Just last June, in a televised address, Duterte called God stupid and said he could not accept Catholicism. Millions of Filipinos were offended by and furious about his comments, but of course no one is threatening to jail him for offending their religious feelings. The difference? Legalists say that Duterte is protected because he wasn’t in a place of worship, the technicality of Article 133 that may lead to Carlos’ jail time. But in reality it is that power and fear rule in the Philippines. Nobody dares challenge Duterte for fear of jail time, harassment or death. Carlos poses no such threat, making him an easy target.
And really. What is more offensive? Someone interrupting a meeting (not a church service), with no media present, to express his freedom of speech and call on bishops to not meddle in politics? Or being a president who constantly uses foul, misogynistic language and who says that God is stupid? That the Supreme Court practically blanket endorses Duterte yet will uphold Carlos’ sentence is reprehensible. It proves that our system is corrupt and does not look kindly on those attempting to change it for the better.
Article 133 is a ridiculous law that should be repealed. There are other laws already in place to protect against speech that could be deemed hateful or inciting violence when it comes to religion. It does not make sense to have this law in place when the Philippines has laws establishing the separation of church and state, religious freedom, and freedom of speech.
Carlos should not have to spend time in jail for exercising his right to express his opinion. If he does, we should all be very afraid for the future of our freedom of speech.
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