Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Extremists’ attack on Paris satirical paper whips up worries about attacks in other parts of the globe. Let’s double our prayers for Pope Francis’ security in our shores. Ultimately the issue of extremism boils down to need for tolerance of and respect for other beliefs.

View of the offices of Charlie Hebdo weekly in Paris (photo from nbc news.com)

I returned a few days ago from Israel, a state that is itself wracked from time to time with violent episodes between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian Arab minority. Thank God that during the two weeks and a half  that I was there---first with the tour group of Arlina Onglao’s “Journeys of Faith,” visiting various holy shrines, then I stayed a  few days more in Jerusalem---it was very peaceful, unlike last July when various areas were exploding with conflict. And the weather in Israel was just beautiful---cold but not too cold, and flowers were all in bloom.

Which is why I was shocked to read about lightning attacks last Wednesday, said to have been carried out by Islamist extremists in Paris against a local publication, the Charlie Hebdo weekly, famous for its satirical pieces. Satire is  a long-venerated French literary genre and tradition and recalls Voltaire's attacks on the Jews. As one writer put it, "satire is as French as champagne." In recent issues Charlie Hebdo targeted the Muslim faith and lately it has dealt in a mocking manner with the prophet Muhammad. 

Nevertheless, as a media person for the past 30 years, it shocked me that among twelve persons killed in that raid were cartoonists, editors, journalists and graphic designers, apart from two policemen.

The dastardly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo have triggered various reactions around the world, stirring fears anew that  extremists are lusting anew for vengeance, reviving the clash of civilizations. One can imagine how tight security worldwide would become; the matter of security becomes particularly relevant in our country as the visit of Pope Francis approaches.  Let us all pray that the Pontiff would be very safe during his visit here.


The Islamist extremists' terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo have also triggered debate worldwide on the validity of the attackers' motivation and how far sentiments against a particular religious belief can be encouraged to prosper into action that would result in harm to others---either in feelings or physically, as in the recent killings in the City of Light. Over the internet the stand of a certain Shellah Montero was printed wherein he or she raised the question of whether a person or organization that employs a media tool “greatly dedicated to mock a religion or faith” deserves to be treated or viewed as a hero.

Shellah Montero argues thus: “I mourn with Paris, this is indeed a tragedy. But I would just want to express an opinion and I respect all the others. In my thoughts though (that) if you have a comic strip greatly dedicated to mock a religion or faith, would you be a hero? No one deserves to die but I think there is a level of respect needed when we want freedom of expression. Something of great value you voice out. Not mockery. Sometimes I am afraid that the world doesn't know that freedom comes with respect. Again murder is murder and these journalists don't deserve to die, but think.. Are they really heroes? Or just victims?”


Where does this blog stand on this issue?  I agree with Shellah Montero about the need to balance a “level of respect needed” with the “freedom of expression” we all advocate and crave for, especially those of us in the media.  As a columnist in the Philippine Daily Inquirer for 25 years and now a blogger for over four years, Heaven knows how strong a position I have taken on many burning questions of the day with the powers that be, especially on political matters. But I have always striven in my long years as media person to raise the level of my arguments to a high plane--- avoiding ridicule and disrespect of personalities or what we call ad hominem attacks.

Let’s debate issues and take a critical stand on them, but I won’t call anyone names.


This brings me to the recent unanimous ruling of a division of the Court of Appeals (CA) dismissing the petition of tour guide and RH advocate Carlos Celdran that he be set free. One and a half years ago Celdran was deemed guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, in a decision handed down by Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. of the Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4, that sentenced  him to imprisonment ranging from two months and 21 days, up to 13 months and eleven days, which he subsequently appealed to the CA and lost.

Celdran was convicted for shouting inside the Manila Cathedral and calling on the Church to stop meddling in government affairs. He walked down the center of the Cathedral carrying a placard that said “Padre Damaso,” and later shouted invectives in the middle of a solemn ceremony inside the Cathedral. “Padre Damaso” refers to the character in National Hero Jose Rizal’s novel referring to a Spanish friar who was hated by the Filipinos.


The Celdran incident and his subsequent  conviction provoked controversy especially in social media. This blogger early on took the side of those who felt that Celdran had EVERY RIGHT to protest Church actions but that it cannot be carried out inside the Cathedral premises while a religious ceremony was going on---in deference to those who conducting it.  I argued early on that had Celdran demonstrated just outside the portals of the Cathedral, such as in Plaza Roma, that would not be contrary to law and no one should bother him. IN FACT I WROTE THAT I WOULD BE THE FIRST TO DEFEND HIS RIGHT TO DEMONSTRATE IN PLAZA ROMA. But on the other hand, I also insisted then that it was a matter of respect for the beliefs of others---the same issue that Shellah Montero has raised---that Celdran has to respect the ceremonies inside the cathedral.

Plainly, Celdran, like all Filipino citizens, can invoke freedom of expression as his  inviolable constitutional right, but Article 133 of the Penal Code also punishes “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

This provision is clear as daylight, and so long as it’s enshrined in the law it has to be respected and upheld.  Lawyers and libertarians who feel uncomfortable about Article 133 should work for its deletion from our statute books---it’s a free country. But for as long as this provision exists, it has to be upheld.

Celdran is lucky that Philippine penal system just chose to jail him briefly; in other climes he would perhaps not have been as lucky.