Interviewer: Jillian York

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso is the executive director of FORUM-Asia. She has worked for many years in human rights organizations in the Philippines and internationally, and is best known for her work on enforced disappearances. She has received several human rights awards at home and abroad, including the Emilio F. Mignone International Human Rights Prize conferred by the Government of Argentina and the Franco-German Ministerial Prize for Human Rights and Rule of Law. In addition to her work at FORUM-Asia, she currently serves as the honorary president of the Unternational Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED), and was formerly a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines.

York: What does free expression mean to you? And can you tell me about an experience, or experiences, that shaped your views on free expression?

To me, free speech or free expression means the exercise of the right to express oneself and to seek and receive information as an individual or an organization. I’m an individual, but I’m also representing an organization, so it means the ability to express thoughts, ideas, or opinions without threats or intimidation or fear of reprisals. 

Free speech is expressed in various avenues, such as in a community where one lives or in an organization where one belongs at the national, regional, or international levels. It is the right to express these ideas, opinions, and thoughts for different purposes, for instance; influencing behaviors, opinions, and policy decisions; giving education; addressing, for example, historical revisionism—which is historically common in my country, the Philippines. Without freedom of speech people will be kept in the dark in terms of access to information, in understanding and analyzing information, and deciding which information to believe and which information is incorrect or inaccurate or is meant to misinform people. So without freedom of speech people cannot exercise their other basic human rights, like the right of suffrage and, for example, religious organizations who are preaching will not be able to fulfill their mission of preaching if freedom of speech is curtailed. 

I have worked for years with families of the disappeared—victims of enforced disappearance—in many countries. And this forced disappearance is a consequence of the absence of free speech. These disappeared people are forcibly disappeared because of their political beliefs, because of their political affiliations, and because of their human rights work, among other things. And they were deprived of the right to speech. Additionally, in the Philippines and many other Asian countries, rallies, for example, and demonstrations on various legitimate issues of the people are being dispersed by security forces in the name of peace. That’s depriving legitimate protesters from the rights to speech and to peaceful assembly. So these people are named as enemies of the state, as subversives, as troublemakers, and in the process they’re tear-gassed, arrested, detained, etcetera. So allowing these people to exercise their constitutional rights is a manifestation of free speech. But in many Asian countries—and many other countries in other regions also—such rights, although provided for by the Constitution, are not respected. Free speech in whatever country you are in, wherever you go, is freedom to study the situation of that country to give your opinion of that situation and share your ideas with others. 

York: Can you share some experiences that helped shape your views on freedom of expression? 

During my childhood years, when martial law was imposed, I’d heard a lot of news about detention, arrest and detention of journalists because of their protest against martial law that was imposed by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr, who was the father of the present President of the Philippines. So I read a lot about violations of human rights of activists from different sectors of society. I read about farmers, workers, students, church people, who were arrested, detained, tortured, disappeared, and killed because of martial law. Because they spoke against the Marcos administration. So during those years when I was so young, this actually formed my mind and also my commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association. 

Once, I was arrested during the first Marcos administration, and that was a very long time ago. That is a manifestation of the curtailment of the right of free speech. I was together with other human rights defenders—I was very young at the time. We were rallying because there was a priest who was made to disappear forcibly. So we were arrested and detained. Also, I was deported by the government of India on my way to Kashmir. I was there three times, but on my third time I was not allowed to go to Kashmir because of our human rights work there. So even now, I am banned in India and I can not go back there. It was because of those reports we made on enforced disappearances and mass graves in Kashmir. So free speech means freedom without thread, intimidation, or retaliation. And it means being able to use all avenues in various contexts to speak in whatever forms—verbal speeches, written speeches, videos, and all forms of communication.

Also, the enforced disappearance of my husband informed my views on free expression. Two weeks after we got married he was briefly forcibly disappeared. He was tortured, he was not fed, and he was forced to confess that he was a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He was together with one other person he did not know and did not see, and they were forced to dig a grave for themselves to be buried alive inside. Another person who was disappeared then escaped and informed us of where my husband was. So we told the military that we knew where my husband was. They were afraid that the other person might testify so they released my husband in a cemetery near his parent’s house.

And that made an impact on me, that’s why I work a lot with families of enforced disappearances both in the Philippines and in many other countries. I believe that the experience of enforced disappearance of my husband, and other family members of the disappeared and their experience of having family members disappeared until now, is a consequence of the violation of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. And also my integration or immersion with families of the disappeared has contributed a lot to my commitment to human rights and free speech. I’m just lucky to have my husband back. And he’s lucky. But the way of giving back, of being grateful for the experience we had—because they are very rare cases where victims of enforced disappearances surfaced alive—so I dedicate my whole life to the cause of human rights. 

York: What do you feel are some of the qualities that make you passionate about protecting free expression for others?

Being brought up by my family, my parents, we were taught about the importance of speaking for the truth, and the importance of uprightness. It was also because of our religious background. We were taught it is very important to tell the truth. So this passion for truth and uprightness is one of the qualities that make me passionate about free expression. And the sense of moral responsibility to rectify wrongs that are being committed. My love of writing, also. I love writing whenever I have the opportunity to do it, the time to do it. And the sense of duty to make human rights a lifetime commitment. 

York: What should we know about the role of social media in modern Philippine society? 

I believe social media contributed a lot to what we are now. The current oppressive administration invested a lot in misinformation, in revising history, and that’s why a lot of young people think of martial law as the years of glory and prosperity. I believe one of the biggest factors of the administration getting the votes was their investment in social media for at least a decade. 

York: What are your feelings on how online speech should be regulated? 

I’m not very sure it should be regulated. For me, as long as the individuals or the organizations have a sense of responsibility for what they say online, there should be no regulation. But when we look at free speech on online platforms these online platforms have the responsibility to ensure that there are clear guidelines for content moderation and must be held accountable for content posted on their platforms. So fact-checking—which is so important in this world of misinformation and “fake news”—and complaints mechanisms have to be in place to ensure that harmful online speech is identified and addressed. So while freedom of expression is a fundamental right, it is important to recognize that this can be exploited to spread hate speech and harmful content all in the guise of online freedom of speech—so this could be abused. This is being abused. Those responsible for online platforms must be accountable for their content. For example, from March 2020 to July 2020 our organization, FORUM-Asia and its partners, including freedom of expression group Athan, documented around 40 cases of hate speech and dangerous speech on Facebook. And the study scope is limited as it only covered posts and comments in Burmese. The researchers involved also reported that many other posts were reported and subsequently removed prior to being documented. So the actual amount of hate speech is likely to be significantly higher. I recommend taking a look at the report. So while FORUM-Asia acknowledges the efforts of Facebook to promote policies to curb hate speech on the platform, it still needs to update and constantly review all these things, like the community guidelines, including those on political advertisements and paid or sponsored content, with the participation of the Facebook Oversight Board. 

York: Can you tell me about a personal experience you’ve had with censorship, or perhaps the opposite, an experience you have of using freedom of expression for the greater good?

In terms of censorship, I don’t have personal experience with censorship. I wrote some opinion pieces in the Union of Catholic Asian News and other online platforms, but I haven’t had any experience of censorship. Although I did experience negative comments because of the content of what I wrote. There are a lot of trolls in the Philippines and they were and are very supportive of the previous administration of Duterte, so there was negative feedback when I wrote a lot on the war on drugs and the killings and impunity. But that’s also part of freedom of speech! I just had to ignore it, but, to be honest, I felt bad. 

York: Thank you for sharing that. Do you have a free expression hero? 

I believe we have so many unsung heroes in terms of free speech and these are the unknown persecuted human rights defenders. But I also answer that during this week we are commemorating the Holy Week [editor’s note: this interview took place on March 28, 2024] so I would like to say that I would like to remember Jesus Christ. Whose passion, death, and resurrection Christians are commemorating this week. So, during his time, Jesus spoke about the ills of society, he was enraged when he witnessed how defenseless poor were violated of their rights and he was angry when authority took advantage of them. And he spoke very openly about his anger, about his defense for the poor. So I believe that he is my hero.

Also, in contemporary times, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, who was canonized as a Saint in 2018, I consider him as my free speech hero also. I visited the chapel where he was assassinated, the Cathedral of San Salvador, where his mortal remains were buried. And the international community, especially the Salvadoran people, celebrated the 44th anniversary of his assassination last Sunday the 24th of March, 2024. Seeing the ills of society, the consequent persecution of the progressive segment of the Catholic church and the churches in El Salvador, and the indiscriminate killings of the Salvadoran people in his communities San Romero courageously spoke on the eve of his assassination. I’d like to quote what he said. He said:

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

So as a fitting tribute to Saint Romero of the Americas the United Nations has dedicated the 24th of March as the International Day for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-repetition. So he is my hero. Of course, Jesus Christ being the most courageous human rights defender during these times, continues to be my hero. Which I’m sure was the model of Monsignor Romero.