Is DENR’s memo vs employees’ online dissent against free speech?

April 7, 2020 - 2:39 PM
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Digital illustration by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources released a memorandum discouraging its employees from posting criticisms against the government’s COVID-19 efforts on social media.

The memo was issued and signed by Marcos Dacanay, assistant regional director of DENR’s Management Services last Monday.

“Please advise all your employees, including those under Contract of Service, not to comment or post negative in (sic) the social media against the government,” the memo read.

“As a government employee, we should exemplify discipline to the community and promote cooperation to the government,” it added.

The memorandum was not released publicly but Twitter user @iskolarspeaks managed to take obtain a copy of the memorandum from his friend and shared it on the microblogging platform on the same day it was issued to employees.

Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda later confirmed the issuance of this memo to reporters.

However, Antiporda clarified that it was just a reminder to DENR employees.

“This is just a simple reminder. There is no disciplinary action against that. It’s their freedom also but it’s just to remind them that you know, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Antiporda told ABS-CBN News.

“It is just to remind them that the government needs the help of each and every one,” he added.

The memorandum was also based on the Code of Conduct for Government Employees and Public Officials (Republic Act 6713), according to Civil Service Commissioner Aileen Lizada.

Government employees should be reminded that they represent the agency they work for when making negative comments.

“Sometimes hindi natin matanggal yung pagkatao ng isang empleyado. Dapat they should bear in mind, when you post something, you carry with you yung pagiging government employee. Kaya, ingat dapat,” Lizada said in a statement sent to ABS-CBN.

“Kasi, kung hindi mo titutulungan ang agency mo, magko-comment ka pa ng negative, bakit ka nandyan?” Lizada added.

New directive violates laws on free speech and expression

A number of lawmakers criticized the DENR’s new memorandum, citing that the government employees has the right to free speech despite them being civil servants.

“Civil service does not deprive government workers of their freedom of expression,” Kabataan Rep. Sarah Elago tweeted.

Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat also added that this is considered censorship or constraint of political speech, which is prohibited by the 1987 Constitution.

“This amounts to prior restraint, or content based regulation, or censorship of political speech proscribed by the constitution,” Cullamat said.

Historian and blogger Kristoffer Passion, a government employee, likewise stressed his civic duty of raising societal concerns as a Filipino citizen.

“Some people may switch off their democracy-button without batting an eye, but I won’t. It is my birthright, a heritage we all share since the Revolution of 1896,” he said.

He also said that prohibiting dissent is also a violation of a government employee’s oath, which a part of it states: “Magsasalita ako laban sa katiwalian at pagsasamantala.” Passion attached a screenshot of it in his tweet.

The employee’s oath was also posted on the official Facebook page Office of the Ombudsman.

The post about it, dated 2016, read: “I deal with those who come near is equal and fair at our office. I will speak out against corruption and exploitation.”

PANUNUMPA NG KAWANI NG GOBYERNOAko'y kawani ng gobyerno, tungkulin ko ang maglingkod nang tapat at mahusay.Dahil…

Posted by Office of the Ombudsman Philippines on Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Section 4 of Article III of the Constitution read: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Moreover, it was also ruled in the case of The People of the Philippine Islands vs Isaac Perez in 1923 that:

“Criticism is permitted to penetrate even to the foundations of Government. Criticism, no matter how severe, on the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary, is within the range of liberty of speech, unless the intention and effect be seditious.”

Meanwhile, spoken word artist Alfonso Manalastas, countered Antiporda’s remark.

“The hand that feeds you is the people, not the government. Sit down, Antiporda,” Manalastas said.