The Explainer: Sedition

Over the past year, one of the favorite pet phrases of our government is, that it will prosecute all those who “incite to sedition.” Our country’s love-hate relationship with sedition is our topic for tonight.


I. Voices of dissent


Jacinto Zamora, priest

Jose Burgos, priest

Jose Rizal, ophalmologist, journalist, novelist

Andres Bonifacio, clerk and organizer

Aurelio Tolentino, playwright

Crisanto Evangelista, labor leader

Diosdado Macapagal, former president

Felixberto Olalia, labor leader

Rigoberto Tiglao, journalist and now Ambassador to Greece


What do these people have in common?

They were all, at one time or another, charged with sedition. Burgos and Zamora unfairly so; Rizal, for daring to write about Philippine society and for espousing reform; Bonifacio, for insisting the Katipunan was already the legitimate government of a revolutionary Philippines; Tolentino, for writing zarzuelas that sang of love of country; Evangelista and Olalia, for challenging management in defense of labor; Macapagal, for writing in defense of democracy, and Tiglao, for writing articles embarrassing to a dictatorship.


With a roster like this, sedition sounds like a pretty darned good thing.

But under the law, it’s not. The law that determines what sedition is, and how it’s punished, is the Revised Penal Code.

The Revised Penal Code is a colonial document, one dating back to the period even before the country’s enjoying full autonomy as a Commonwealth. Originally enacted in 1930 with no end to American sovereignty in sight, the Code has been amended numerous times.

The Philippine legislature approved the Revised Penal Code, which contains the provision on sedition, on Dec. 8, 1930. President Ferdinand Marcos amended it on July 19, 1976 through Executive Order 187. The law, as originally passed, was for the protection of the colonizers; the amendment, for the protection of the former dictator.

The anachronistic nature of the law, as amended, is shown by repeated references to the United States as part and parcel of the governing authority of the Philippines. A law enacted in colonial times is, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing.

But when a law remains firmly rooted in a period during which laws were formulated to protect and maintain foreign hegemony (as is the case of our Revised Penal Code), that law surely is a bad thing.

A fundamental contradiction exists between the provisions of the law (to enforce colonial control in a subject country) and the guiding principles of the sovereign nation that has emerged from colonial rule.

The best example of this is how British colonial laws are used by former colonies such as Singapore and Malaysia to enforce draconian measures against free speech, assembly and other avenues of legitimate dissent against the state.

One of the legacies of the British Empire in its former colonies are the sedition laws of Malaysia, Singapore, and so forth. In their time, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarlahal Nehru, fathers of modern India and advocates of peaceful independence, were imprisoned for sedition.

Rebellion, insurrection, coups d’etat, or the conspiracy to commit those crimes, as well as sedition, are punishable under the provisions (Articles 134 to 142) of the Revised Penal Code. Each of these offenses is defined.

For example, rebellion or insurrection are defined as a crime “committed by rising publicly and taking arms against the Government for the purpose of removing from the allegiance to said Government or its laws, the territory of the Philippine Islands or any part thereof, of any body of land, naval or other armed forces, depriving the Chief Executive or the Legislature, wholly or partially, of any of their powers or prerogatives.”

Sedition, meanwhile, is defined as a crime “committed by persons who rise publicly and tumultuously in order to attain by force, intimidation, or by other means outside of legal methods, any of the following objectives:


1. To prevent the promulgation or execution of any law or the holding of any popular election;

2. To prevent the National Government, or any provincial or municipal government or any public officer thereof from freely exercising its or his functions, or prevent the execution of any administrative order;

3. To inflict any act of hate or revenge upon the person or property of any public officer or employee;

4. To commit, for any political or social end, any act of hate or revenge against private persons or any social class; and

5. To despoil, for any political or social end, any person, municipality or province, or the National Government (or the Government of the United States), of all its property or any part thereof.”


Of particular interest to writers, TV and radio anchors, and commentators, and by extension, you, our viewers,  is the provision on inciting to sedition (Art. 142).

It states that punishment will be “imposed upon any person who, without taking any direct part in the crime of sedition, should incite others to the accomplishment of any of the acts which constitute sedition, by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, cartoons, banners, or other representations tending to the same end, or upon any person or persons who shall utter seditious words or speeches, write, publish, or circulate scurrilous libels against the Government (of the United States or the Government of the Commonwealth) of the Philippines, or any of the duly constituted authorities thereof, or which tend to disturb or obstruct any lawful officer in executing the functions of his office, or which tend to instigate others to cabal and meet together for unlawful purposes, or which suggest or incite rebellious conspiracies or riots, or which lead or tend to stir up the people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community, the safety and order of the Government, or who shall knowingly conceal such evil practices.”

That’s a long and complicated definition that seems to cover everything under the sun. Or does it? What counts as sedition, when we return.




That was from… Where…

An American justice once famously said he couldn’t define pornography but would know it, if he saw it. In a sense, the same can be said of free speech: one person’s art is, to another person, obscenity and pornography; one person’s freedom of expression is, to another person, particularly when in office, sedition that must be rooted out and punished. And the same applies from generation to generation: much we see on TV or in the movies, or even listen to, much less read, would have been punishable and considered objectionable a generation or two ago.

Explainee, listen to this tune. Do you know it?


Your’e listening to the Filipino version of The Internationale, the global anthem of Socialism and for a time the national anthem of the Soviet Union. Protesters during the First Quarter Storm would have been familiar with it. The song speaks of revolution. There was a time when playing it would have been seditious.

And to some, it still may be seditious, since the Left still thrills to its lyrics. But then I also recall a close associate of the President who used this tune as his ringtone. So the question is, when would such a dangerous song be seditious? When played in a rally? But not when played as a ringtone? But the song speaks of revolution, and the revenge of the powerless against the powerful and rich.

Or take a look at these posters, dating from the 1965 presidential campaign.

This one is innocent enough, Macapagal-Roxas, the incumbent ticket. But here’s another-

Marcos-Lopez, with what seems a pretty tough message: Can you read it, there, Explainee?

Yes, “Stop Crime, Stop Mac!” Equating Macapagal with criminality. Wouldn’t that be sedition? Putting, as it does, the governing authority, the then-incumbent president, in disrepute?

And the many editorial cartoons we’ve featured on this show, such as this one-

And this one-

Or this one-

Would they serve as seditious propaganda? Or when Rizal designed the cover of Noli Me Tangere, did his drawing of the hairy leg of a friar not serve seditious ends? Or, if you could read this, Explainee:

 How horrible. How ugly! He looks like a fur seal… Yes, yes, a fur seal with  moustache!

Let us describe the fur seal:…I mean the friar,…

His baptismal name is  Ano , because he was born on the feast day of Santa Ana; but he gets furious and flies into a rage when when he’s called Fr. Ano…

He seemed meek; but after he had been ordained and sang his first Mass, after five years in the country, eating bananas and papayas and after his appointment as parish priest… he has become so smart that he is now very rich…


That was written by Graciano Lopez Jaena, a hero; but it was seditious in its time, but there remain Filipinos who share the same attitude. Would they be committing sedition to share a heroe’s sarcastic thoughts?

Or when you hear a speech like this:

(play Olalia)


Which was Pen Medina performing Felixberto Olalia’s final speech: did you hear anything in that 1980s era speech, that you haven’t heard today? Olalia was prosecuted for sedition; but then we were under a dictatorship. So would sedition today, be the same as sedition yesterday, even though yesterday we were not free, and today we’re told we remain free?

Explainee, here’s something Claro M. Recto observed in the 1950. Would you like to read it?

Our political campaigns are conducted with untrammeled freedom of expression. Anybody can stand up on a street corner and call the President of the Philippines an incompetent old fogey, a power-mad oligarch, the assassin of Philippine democracy, the defender and protector of corrupt officials. People say it every day. They shout it loud on Plaza Miranda in modes and styles of infinite variation. Some are scholarly and discreet; others are coarse and brutal; some descend to vulgar personalities; others soar to constitutional heights; but they all have the freedom to denounce and ridicule the administration.

Recall that Recto was the President of the Constitutional Convention that drafted the 1935 Constitution, which provided for freedom of speech, to which our present Constitution has added freedom of expression.

We moved forward in terms of our rights as citizens in 1935 and 1987, but our laws remain stuck in 1930, when no one was sure when our flag would finally flutter free and alone.

So why is it laws that made sense when Fort Bonifacio was still Fort William McKinley, when every Filipino official had to take an oath of allegiance to America, are still felt to make sense today?

Because the laws have always made sense to those who hold what the law’s meant to uphold: the possession of power.

Never mind that in the sixty years we’ve been independent, our definitions of our freedoms and rights have changed –expanding for the better.

It is clear that the Revised Penal Code when it comes to limitations of freedom of speech and expression is strict. And that it remains fully valid since no challenge to its provisions has prospered in the courts. This means every law-abiding citizen and official has the duty to enforce these provisions. (Since every man has free will and the chance to act according to his conscience, he has every right to go against the law, but clearly this entails the risk of suffering the harsh penalties provided by it.) Obviously laws are liable to interpretation; and the more they have to be twisted to apply to conditions unimaginable at the time the law was written, the more likely injustice will be committed. The fundamental defect of the Revised Penal Code, for example, is that terrorism, as a method and a crime, simply isn’t covered. A fruitful objective, then, for those worried about civil liberties and government abuse, is to lobby for the systematic overhaul of the Code.


When we return, we’ll discuss the prospects for such an overhaul.


My view


A country that has a national hero sentenced to death for sedition; that had the father of its revolution accused of sedition; that has a president whose own father was once charged with sedition, has no business, I strongly believe, keeping sedition as a punishable crime in its books.

We are a nation whose identity and freedom was built not by force of arms, but by force of ideas. By the crafting of a sense of national identity and destiny in newspapers, pamphlets, and books, we became Filipinos. Mightier than the swords of Spain and America, the jackboots of the Japanese, the martial law of a home-grown dictator, have been the pens of novelists, propagandists, playwrights, film directors and song writers. They  have all done more to make us want to be free, and to reclaim that freedom every time it’s taken away, than all the laws that could ever be crafted by lawmakers.

That has to mean something; and it has to mean something when the only defense a Filipino official has against his countrymen is the same threat made by a Spanish kangaroo court against Rizal. Recto coined the term colonial mentality, and its greatest manifestation is the mentality that demands for our own democratic leaders, the privileges of the occupying powers of foreigners.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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