Friday, September 23, 2005

Back to basics

Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that a republic is an indirect democracy where the people govern themselves through their elected representatives, the essence of republicanism is not in fact representation but participation.

And for participation to be meaningful, a certain degree of understanding of the issues that affect the public is imperative. This understanding is obtained either through self-help (e.g., reading up on books, essays, scholarly dissertations and other relevant informative literature) or through the intervention of the professional purveyors of information. These purveyors, outside the formal setting of a classroom, are often the newsperson – he who has to put together information for those participants having no time or probably too slothful to learn for themselves.

The goal of the educative process for effective participation is not uniformity of opinion but consensus, one that is arrived at upon weighing different, if not conflicting, information. Here again, the role of the print and broadcast media as a neutral conduit for the transmission of critical information can never be overemphasized. When the media is utilized as megaphones for special, as against the general, interest, it becomes a menace to democracy. This is so because the true measure of the liberty to participate is not so much to consent as to dissent. The media then, instead of instilling conformity to the obtaining value system, is duty-bound to provide space and time to contending sides.

The right to information on matters of public concerns in conjunction with the right to dissent is at the heart of the liberty to participate. Today, there are relevant events occurring in the Philippines that are putting to the crucible these basic democratic rights and values.

For instance, flowing from the people’s right to information is the authority of Congress or the Senate to sanction someone called to appear before it but who refuses to shed light on decidedly important public matters. The authority, while generally viewed as a necessary adjunct (or aid) to legislation or policymaking, is however rooted in the liberty to enlightened participation on the part of the citizenry, not only while acting through their elected representatives but as active or passive participants in the public assembly that congressional proceedings and debates symbolize. This participatory process makes democracy a continuing experimentation or a going concern.

How can the public be denied to know whether the fundamental Charter that will govern the powers and structures of their government and the basic rights of the individual citizens is reflective of the preferences of the majority or the prevailing consensus and not the result of “treasonous” or immoral horse-trading among conniving politicians and sleazy foreign operators? Anyone who is willing to thwart this process deserves to be cited for contempt, to say the least.

The right to dissent, on the other hand, flows from the liberty to advance what one believes in and to participate in activities in pursuance of those beliefs. It is also a right against disinformation or misinformation. On the other hand, it is dissent that protects the public from the follies and crimes by the powers that be. Those who are afraid to engage in exchanges or debates, or hiding something from the public, are thus predisposed to suppress this right.

Dissent is too fundamental a right in a democracy to be denied in the name of tranquil public thoroughfares or the efficient conduct of a profitable endeavor. Therefore, requirement of any permission from power holders to exercise the right is an outright diminution of it. And even when the requirement of permission is warranted, it cannot be withheld unconstitutionally. Otherwise, with or without permit, the voices of dissent even if loud, uncivil, or disrespectful must carry on.

The current power holders in the Philippines should not lose sight of the fact that the liberties they threaten to curtail today are the same liberties that granted them the self-same powers they are raring to misuse and abuse.

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