There appears to be some misunderstanding on the nature of freedom of expression lately. The trigger was a comic strip, the renowned Pugad Baboy. In the strip that invited protest from the normally nonchalant nuns of St. Scholastica’s College, a character remarked : “Galit kayo sa mga gays and lesbians pero sa mga sagrado Katolikong all-girls iskul na pinapatakbo pa mandin ng mga madre e kino-condone ang pagka-tibo ng mga estudyante.” Another character then said: “O’ nga ‘no? Sa St. Scho e wala kang makikitang magandang Kulasa na walang girlfriend.” It was then reported that upon receiving a letter of complaint from the Catholic school, the Inquirer removed the comic strip from its paper and has since apologized through its publisher, Dean Raul Pangalangan. It would later be clarified that the newspaper only “suspended publication of the comic strip pending an investigation of the issue”.
The Concerned Artists of the Philippines then protested that what happened to the comic strip was a “breach of freedom of expression”. Moreover, the group said that “suspension and censorship of Pugad Baboy set a dangerous precedent for other publications and media institutions under similar situations.”
Let me begin by acknowledging that comic strips have always been considered protected speech. Even if patently offensive to some, it has been protected as a form of parody and satire which have been accepted as legitimate inputs to the free market place of ideas.
But my point though is that in terms of legal structure, the protection of freedom of expression is intended as a guarantee against government infringement. Historically, the right has been protected as a means of ascertaining the truth and as a means of formulating public opinion intended to fiscalize government. It hence operates as a to bar to government from imposing either prior restraint to its exercise, or from subsequent punishment for the same. It was not intended to be a bar for private entities, such as a private newspaper, from exercising self-imposed restraint when it chooses to. That is what is called editorial discretion.
Obviously, the rationale for the Inquirer in suspending the cartoon strip was the seemingly homophobic slur of the comic strip. It implied that being LGBT should not be countenanced, especially by the religious. But taken in its totality, I actually do not understand why St. Scho even protested the strip. Certainly, we all respect St. Scho for being the bastion of progressive thought that it is and in a manner that sometimes makes UP look conservative. The comic strip could be read as homage to the school that respects its students’ right to choose their romantic partners. This, despite the fact that we still live in a society where the state, in mandating that a marriage can only be between a man and a woman, still regulates the choice of one’s partner by law. But much as we were perplexed by St. Scho’s action, the fact is they did protest and the Inquirer had no choice but to act on it. In doing so, it could have simply brushed off St Scho’s protest and maintain that the strip was legitimate parody, or it could determine, pursuant to its own editorial judgment, if the strip was in fact worthy of publication.
It turns out that the publication of the comic strip was by reason of an editorial lapse. It was apparently already previously rejected for publication, but inadvertently published later. The protest merely caused the newspaper to review what its editorial policy was on the comic strip. When it discovered that it had published it only by mistake, it took the noble path and apologized to the public for it. While I have always been an advocate of freedom of expression (basically because I have always had a big mouth that has frequently put me in some trouble) part of the advocacy for the right is to uphold editorial discretion on what a newspaper would want to publish. This includes apologizing for content, which in their judgment, was only published by mistake. The Inquirer of course should take care to exercise stronger editorial control and ensure it will publish only content that it wants to publish. Pugad Baboy is already the second time recently when the newspaper has had to apologize to the public for its erroneous publication. The first time was when it published a hoax of P Noy’s photograph depicting him in a not so dignified manner. While to err is human, to err this frequently maybe construed as carelessness. This may ultimately undermine the newspaper’s role as a public trust.
Do I respect Inquirer any less because of its apologies? Let’s just say that it helps that they were made by a face that I trust. Thank goodness it has Pangalangan as its publisher!