Monday, November 19, 2007

Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head

When do supposed stalwarts of the freedom of expression suddenly turn into its very own oppressors?

This is the question present in the minds of the people concerned in these two seemingly different real-life situations.


The first case involves a group of media people, a group of artists, and a mural.

The group of media people is the National Press Club (NPC). The artists' group is the Angono Artists' Collective. The mural was a project commissioned by the NPC to the Angono artists for the former's anniversary.

After the artists completed the mural, the NPC didn't like several elements painted in it and thus ordered the artists to alter the said elements. The artists hated the idea and refused to change anything in the mural, contending that this is their own artistic depiction of the NPC's achievements in the past years. Thus, the NPC decided to get another artist to make the changes in the mural. This angers the artists who cry foul over what the NPC did. the NPC people meanwhile accuse the artists of a breach of contract. It was later revealed that the contract itself was faulty.

Several verbal tussles ensue between representatives of the NPC and the president of the artists' group. The former insists that they paid for the mural and this makes it their property. In fact, they add, they can even burn the mural if they wanted to. (Gasp!)

The latter, meanwhile, insists that they have intellectual property rights to the mural. This means that they have the right to place any element in the mural that they deem would properly depict the NPC as a core media group. This also means that no one is to tamper with any element in their mural without their expressed consent -- even if the mural is a commissioned project.

The latest in this drama is that the NPC is trying to get the administration of the Philippine Daily Inquirer to buy the so-called "flawed" mural. I'm not sure as to the veracity of reports that the NPC was successful in selling the said mural, but if they were, they'd be making a clean "Pontius Pilate" escape. With that, the artists would have to contend with a new mural owner.


The second case happened much closer to home. Not many knew that this occurred but perhaps now is the time for this to be brought into the open.

Flashback to February 2005 -- the celebration of Arts Month which falls every February. In the University of the Philippines in the Visayas-Tacloban College (UPVTC), the Division of Humanities (DH) would always organize activities for this said month, and it was the DH division head who christened it with the name, the Saringsing Arts Festival. Saringsing, by the way, is a Waray-waray term for the growth of new leaves or buds. Thus, the Saringsing Arts Festival is not only dedicated to the arts but also to the new ideas and creative genius of the UPVTC community.

The DH faculty members are very busy during this time, thinking of ingenious ideas to make the Saringsing a festival in every sense of the word. During that particular time I was still a member of the DH faculty, having been connected with the University for almost two school years already. My idea of an activity for that year was inspired by an event during my college days in UP Diliman wherein several students' organizations in cooperation with Fine Arts students would turn an entire stretch of road into a canvas for their paintings. The result was a massive street mural that stretched along the front of the Arts and Sciences Building.

Since we didn't have streets running through our college, I decided to use the concrete pavement of the Arts and Sciences covered walk instead. I was quite excited about my plan, knowing that this was going to be the first time the whole UPVTC community would witness an event like this. I was even planning on turning this event into an annual thing.

Unfortunately, the UPVTC administration didn't share my enthusiasm. The DH division head told me that my proposal was disapproved, and that if I wanted to make an appeal, I should take it up with the college dean herself -- Marieta Sumagaysay.

I immediately headed for the Dean's Office to find out exactly why my proposal was junked. Dean Sumagaysay initially explained that a group of people from the administration discussed the proposal and came to the conclusion that using the AS Covered Walk for mural painting was not a good idea for the following reasons:

- Since we don't have Fine Arts students, it is possible that instead of coming up with an attractive mural, the student may just make a mess out of it.

- Bad weather and constant trampling will eventually destroy the mural, and it will turn into an eyesore instead of an art piece.

I contended that one doesn't have to be a Fine Arts student to express himself/herself creatively. Besides, this is a perfect venue to unleash the hidden talents of some of our artistic students. And since I had the resident art organization backing me up, I'm sure they'd be around to check on the artistic aspects of the event.

As for the mural eventually getting destroyed, I noted that this is the same thing that happens to the UP Diliman mural. However, this sets the stage for another round of mural-painting by the next year. The students can just paint over remnants of the last mural.

Dean Sumagaysay's arguments withered with my reasoning. However, she pulled out the argument to end all arguments: How are we going to check for content?

I was taken aback by the good dean's specific concern. Ever since I started teaching in UPVTC, I always had faith in the students in the sense that they were reasonable and responsible enough to air their concerns in proper venues. They know the difference between art and profanity, which was why I never worried about content. However, I was disturbed that the dean and her cohorts were concerned -- as in deeply concerned -- about what the students may say through the mural. This activity was supposed to be an outlet for the UPVTC community to express themselves. Why must there be a need for censorship?

In my shock, I think I stumbled through my reasoning against the dean's argument. She then suggested that we meet halfway. Instead of painting on the AS Covered Walk, we were to provide participants with yards of streamer fabric to paint on. These streamers were to be put on display on the side of the AS Building for the duration of the Arts Month. By the start of March, they were to be taken down.

At first, I thought that it was a lame idea. There simply was no substitute for mural painting. But the dean just pulled a fast one on me: If I still insisted on mural painting, then it will have to be discussed in the next general faculty meeting which was slated for the last Wednesday of February.

That was a low blow. If we still debated on whether to push through with the mural painting or not in the general faculty meeting, then by the time the project did push through (IF approved), it would already be March. The initial intent for the mural painting to be held in time for the Saringsing Arts Festival would all be for naught.

Thus, I had to settle for the canvas painting. While it was quite a rousing success, I didn't repeat that activity the next year.


Censorship reared its ugly head in these two situations. For this monster to manifest itself in two institutions that purport to stand for idealism, ethics, and responsibility is a phenomenon that is beyond me.

Has media -- as in the case of the NPC mural -- forgotten its sworn duty to remain neutral in its stance, and to respect other people's intellectual property rights? Have they -- in their desire to be on the good side of none other than Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who was guest of honor at their mural unveiling -- avoided to step on the polished shoes of prominent people in government, and instead decided to step on the slippered feet of the Angono artists?

Why are the people of the UPVTC administration afraid of what powerless students would say about them through the mural? Is it because the students may just force them to face a certain fact splashed upon the pavement for all to see? What is this "fact" that they're so hesitant to face?

Unfortunately, there are no answers to all these questions -- only speculation.

In the end, censorship scores two points. As for the truth? Zero.

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