We Are The Censors_Final
We Are The Censors. Image credit: Katrina Stuart Santiago.

Creativity, Conservatism, and Censorship: A Philippine Snapshot

In a wide-ranging historical analysis of censorship in the Philippines, from Marcos (Senior) to Marcos (Junior), Katrina Stuart Santiago lays bare the myth of artistic freedom in the Philippines. In the process, she identifies a mounting conservatism, and new kinds of censors.

If censorship is the weapon, conservatism are its bullets. 

In contexts where there is a clear and powerful right-wing, conservatism stands strong against liberalism and democracy. Lines are clearly drawn on issues, and polarization holds for most of discourse. But in landscapes like the Philippines, where the socio-political cannot simply be divided between left and right, many issues are necessarily complicated by the push-and-pull among political factions, some premised on ideological differences, other times on lesser, trivial divides. 

One of those issues is arts and culture censorship. And in heavily fractured socio-political contexts, artistic work and creative labor face bigger risks of repression, whether in the form of outright censorship, or the more insidious forms of silencing. In places like the Philippines, this is more complex than it sounds: the instigators are not your usual suspects, and targets are as diverse as they come.

That this is rarely talked about, fleshed out, and discussed, only makes matters worse: difficult conversations are such because they are urgent and necessary. When we refuse to have them, we end up suppressing dialogue that is indispensable to contemporary discourse on censorship, artistic and otherwise.

Martial Law maneuver

This is not to say that we do not talk about arts and culture censorship at all. It is to say that when we do so, we mostly only tie it to one moment when it was wielded as weapon at scale. 

In the Philippines this moment would be Martial Law, as imposed by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1972 His order to close all privately-owned television, film, and radio facilities on September 22 , and to jail any person who prints, publishes, possesses, or circulates written or drawn print materials that might incite the people to defy government on October 28² of the same year, are testament to a dictatorship that lived off the suppression of artistic rights and freedoms. While the basis for these two orders could simply be seen to be about controlling criticism and anti-government propaganda, what it glosses over is the belief that the citizenry is so intellectually ill-equipped that they will easily be swayed in any political direction, including towards rebellion.

Since the People Power Revolution of 1986 ousted Marcos and his family, the Martial Law era has been held up as proof of the worst kind of artistic repression. But that also raises more difficult conversations that are met with evasion. There’s the truth that despite institutional censorship, the era gave birth to important, critically-acclaimed work across the arts, and established cultural institutions that continue to be relevant. And then there’s the fact that we have failed to assess arts and culture across the six Presidents since 1986, as if it is unworthy of discussion without repression.

Yet it would be a lie to say that artists and cultural workers have lived with untrammeled freedom since the ouster of the Marcoses; it would also be a lie to say that since censorship has not been the policy of any government since Marcos, then it does not exist at all. In fact, tracking post-Marcos censorship reveals how often it’s been wielded as weapon, and how it harks back to Marcos era reasoning.

In January 1986, an anonymous Filipino journalist was quoted by the Los Angeles Times: “The censors treat us like children. We cannot grow up that way—but maybe they don’t want us to grow up” [… so we will continue] “to think of ourselves as slaves.”³  

Four months earlier, on October 5 1985, Marcos had signed the Presidential Decree that would create the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) that was to decide if a film or TV show is fit for exhibition in the country based on what it called the standard of “contemporary Filipino cultural values.” To this day, this office exists as a body that judges, regulates, classifies, and decides if a TV or movie is fit for exhibition in the country.  In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, MTRCB even sought to wield its power over online streaming services like Netflix, to ensure that it “complies with Filipino contemporary values.”

Democracy and conservatism

The newly installed democratic government of President Cory Aquino in 1986 (in)famously believed that “culture is not a priority.”⁶  Even then, it didn’t mean that arts and culture could live free of censure. Instead, what it normalized was a particular brand of Catholic conservatism which, through Aquino, dictated which cultural products were “fit” for public consumption. Aquino was a devout Catholic whose rise to power came with support from the Catholic Church and the requisite iconography of religious statues and prayer. The return to democracy and creative freedom could only be burdened by this conservatism in leadership. That Aquino allowed the MTRCB to continue to exist is telling: after all, if censorship highlights a distrust of the people’s ability to decide on what is good and bad art, then Aquino (as does the Church) held on to this distrust. 

This distrust of course was different across the Marcos and Aquino leaderships. The former’s censorship was part and parcel of Martial Rule and was particularly interested in ensuring that no cultural product would, as the Presidential Decree that created the MTRCB states, “incite subversion, insurrection, rebellion or sedition against the State, or otherwise threaten the economic and/or political stability of the State.” 

On the contrary, the Aquino leadership from 1986 to 1992 normalized governments with a clear public stance against the censorship of the arts, while appointing censors chiefs who could shamelessly assert that “Sex [in film] is detrimental to the people. If a person is poor and he gets horny, he’s just going to rape,”.⁷ This kind of thinking led to the banning of films like “Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “Schindler’s List” (1993).

Assertions that speak of “the morality of Filipino culture” are intricately tied to the (domineering) notion that the Philippines is a Catholic country, which necessarily puts culture and the arts at risk of being attacked in the name of religion’s morals and truths. Aquino and the presidents that followed her tended towards clamping down on artistic work that were “offensive” as based on a very subjective notion of morality.  

Interestingly, when former President Rodrigo Duterte started publicly flouting Catholicism’s unspoken rules—making rape jokes, objectifying women, threatening to kill citizens—and blatantly treated the Catholic Church as enemy, this did not mean he eschewed conservatism. 

Instead, he espoused a conservatism tied to his stand against legal militant Leftist organizations. Five years out of Duterte’s six, these organizations and its activists suffered State attacks, from red-tagging to mass arrests to extrajudicial killings. His government also employed a propaganda strategy that used the “protection” of the youth as the reason behind their anti-Left campaign.

In doing so, the government espoused a conservatism that insists that the youth—college students and young adults—are incapable of making decisions for themselves. In this equation, the youth are always but “victims” of Leftist (i.e., Marxist) ideology, ”trapped” in organizations that turn them into “rebels.” In 2018, 18 schools were tagged as “recruitment ground” for Leftist organizations, and with it came the accusation that it is culture—films and books¹⁰—that is used for recruitment efforts. It is for this reason that a clamp down on films deemed as “leftist” such as Martial Law films like Kip Oebanda’s Liway to library books published by Left organizations, or written by authors deemed as leftist—have been targeted by the State. Leftist cultural workers and artists have been thrown in jail, such as members of artist collective Panday Sining.¹¹

On the one hand, this kind of artistic censorship under Duterte is cut from the same cloth as Marcos, speaking as it does of subversion and inciting to rebellion. On the other hand, across all presidents after Marcos, conservatism is a common thread that surfaces as a reaction to diverse cultural products that are deemed as immoral and unfit for public consumption. 

In this landscape, the public is infantilized, justifying the State’s goal of controlling what culture the public consumes, and  blocking any creativity that is deemed detrimental to the safety and care of citizens, even as it can lay claim to the notion that there is no censorship because the Philippine Constitution clearly states that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of expression.”

Snapshots of cultural censorship

Given the above context, what we see in the censorship of arts and culture over the past decade or so would come as no surprise. It is a by-product of three decades of democracy, with no censorship on paper, but with the freedom to be offended—and act on that offense—at any given time, in whatever context. To some extent, this landscape is even more dangerous for arts and culture: after all, artists can only prepare for attacks if they know what it’s supposed to look like and where it might come from. 

But in recent years, censorship has been used as weapon in ways that have yet to be named, as it has been wielded by unusual suspects.

This is of course not unique to the Philippines. PEN America’s Artists At Risk Connection looks at censorship in all its complexity, as instigated by State and non-state actors, through various ways and across different spaces, including the digital, where both public and private groups are identified as possible sources of censure.

In the Philippines, the complexity of censorship is in the fact that even as there has been a growing number of instances in which it happens, these are usually denied by both its State and non-State instigators. In fact, it would be no surprise if a snapshot of varied instances of contemporary censorship of arts and culture would warrant an attack or two—we would rather think hierarchically about the harms of censorship, where one “kind” is worse than the other, instead of seeing these acts as different manifestations that are detrimental to creative freedom and artistic expression, full stop. 

That of course makes putting it on paper even more imperative. 

Two presidents—one devout Catholic, the other anti-Catholic—refused to confer the National Artist Award to an actress and icon chosen by her peers in arts and culture. The basis for their refusal: that she is no role model, given dismissed drug charges on her public record.¹²

A noontime show’s reality-dating segment which focuses on a woman’s search for love is censured by a militant-feminist organization for being exploitative—never mind that the woman is an adult who consented to this process.¹³

An international pop icon holding a concern in Manila is accused of being “a symbol of everything corrupt and demonic.”¹⁴

Musicians lose work to an online mob, where the loudest, often nameless, collective will always win at cancellation.¹⁵

Artists’ exhibitions are ”cancelled” online by civil society actors, for everything from PR photos that are guilty of “poverty porn,”¹⁶ to failing to create “emancipatory spaces” for the LGBTQIA+ community.¹⁷ One statement against the exhibition, “satire lost on the people will be the weapon of the oppressor”, disturbingly echoes the State’s historic infantilization of the public.

An art installation is deemed blasphemous and taken down by the Cultural Center—along with the group exhibit it appeared in after media framed the work as anti-Church and the religious backlash ensued.¹⁸

A performance artist enters a church carrying a sign that harks back to the Spanish Colonial Era Catholic repression, in protest of the Church’s stance against reproductive health bill, and is jailed for “offending religious feelings.”¹⁹

A comics writer is forced to resign for talking about lesbianism in an exclusive Catholic girls’ school in his comics strip.²⁰

Thirteen human rights organizations call for the removal of a Netflix series on the Duterte drug war—before it even premieres.²¹

Many of the cases above reveal the continued normalization of conservative beliefs and ideology as reason for creative repression, but now instigated, not by the state, but primarily by non-State actors. 

Other cases may be driven by new urgencies—under the rubric of addressing systemic inequalities of class or gender—that deserve to be interrogated. However, the enactment of outrage in recent cases appear to result in conversation-ending “cancellation” of artists or removal of artworks—censorship in a word—rather than accountability and discourse. 

It is important to deepen the discussion with regards to the common tone, tenor, and language used to discuss “offensive” work and actions, by both the state and non-state agents. More research is necessary, but early indications show a troubling replication of the State’s methods—call for take downs, online cancellations, boycotts, and un-publication. After all, employing the loudest (collective) voice calling for censorship of works based on offense and outrage is easy. That these acts are justified by saying it is for the “greater good,” or “the safety of all,” is telling—dictators and fascists say the same thing after all.

This predisposition also evades what would arguably be the more difficult task—to battle things out in the arena of creativity, a film for a film, a book for a book. To support artistic expression, no matter how flawed, by challenging works we disagree with, and generating new discourses, counter-works, counter narratives instead of removing and calling for the banning of works, or the silencing and de-platforming of artists.

In 2012, in the face of massive protests from Catholic religious groups against her concert, Lady Gaga said to a packed stadium: “I am not a creature of your government, Manila!” She then proceeded to sing the song “Judas.” 

It would be good to start wondering now how many of us have become the creatures we seek to slay.  

¹Letter of Instruction No. 1, s. 1972. Signed by Ferdinand Marcos on September 22. Originally in the official government website of the Philippines but is now a dead link. Accessed via Web Archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20161013150457/http://www.gov.ph/1972/09/22/letter-of-instruction-no-1-s-1972/

²Presidential Decree No. 33, s. 1972. Signed by Ferdinand Marcos on October 28, 1972. Originally in the official government website of the Philippines but is now a dead link. Accessed via Web Archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20161012083750/http://www.gov.ph/1972/10/28/presidential-decree-no-33-s-1972/

³“PHILIPPINE CONTRADICTIONS : Innocence Versus Independence in a Land of Film Censorship”

By John M. Wilson. January 5 1986. Los Angeles Times Archives. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-01-05-ca-24399-story.html

History of creation and changes in policy are on its official site. https://midas.mtrcb.gov.ph/site/#!/pd1986

⁵From the chairperson of the MTRCB Rachel Arenas, 2021. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2020/09/05/2040193/mtrcb-hit-over-plan-regulate-netflix

National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal spoke on this in his memoir: “In 1986, Cory came to power. We were appalled that at the very beginning of the Aquino administration the first statement that emanated from the palace was that culture was going to be the last priority.” Bernal would be at the forefront of the fight against film censorship during the Cory years. (229, Pro Bernal Anti Bio) Quote comes from Jaime Salazar’s December 2011 piece on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts on propinoy.net.

Quote from Manoling Morato, Censors Chief of Cory Aquino, 1986-1992, in “’Schindler's List' Fuss In Philippines -- Censors Object To Sex, Not The Nazi Horrors” by William Branigin. March 9 1994. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1994/03/08/manila-in-agony-over-schindlers-ecstasy/5fe01ab8-f116-42ea-ad8d-15f44f83b9e5/

In December 2018, Duterte created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). This seemed like a culmination of sorts of all of Duterte’s anti-Left pronouncements, the growing attacks on activists, and a heavily militarized government. —https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1157417

In October 2018, BGen. Antonio Parlade Jr., Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), asserted in an interview that screenings of Martial Law films in schools was a recruitment strategy of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Parlade would later on lead the NTF-ELCAC. — https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2018/10/03/Red-October-AFP-schools.html

¹⁰In 2021, some local colleges and universities start pulling out what was deemed as “subversive books” from their school libraries, and turning these over to the local offices of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency. These are books written by members of or related to the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). School administrators assert that this was their way of supporting the government’s anti-insurgency project. The NTF-ELCAC lauds these moves, saying that removal of these books from school libraries “will save our youth.” — https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1491609/another-university-removes-ndfp-books-from-library

¹¹In 2019, the City of Manila declared as persona non grata the artist group Panday Sining for its public art in the streets of Manila. Soon after the declaration, three artists were arrested during a protest rally. — https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1196747/4-panday-sining-members-nabbed-for-vandalism

¹²In 2014 and again in 2018, Nora Aunor, actress and icon denied conferment of the National Artist Award by two different Presidents: devout Catholic Benigno Aquino III and anti-Catholic Rodrigo Duterte. Aquino’s reasoning was that despite the fact that Aunor deserve the award for her artistic work, this was about a drug charge that had since been dismissed: “The message here is that drugs are bad, I cannot emphasize that enough. If I made her a national artist, how would she be as a role model?” Duterte, with his anti-drug campaign, unsurprisingly followed Aquino’s decision. His Presidential spokesperson delivered a statement saying that it was for Aunor’s own protection that she was not given the award given the public outcry that would ensue if she were given it. 

¹³In 2012, Angelica Yap’s search for love was televised daily on the noontime show “It’s Showtime” in a reality-dating-game contest. Leftist-feminist group Gabriela wrote the the MTRCB, claiming that the segment was exploitative and asking for an investigation. Yap, her mother, and the show pushed back against Gabriela, basically pointing out that Yap was an adult woman who was doing this with consent.

¹⁴In 2012, pop icon Lady Gaga was set to have a two-night concert in Manila. Catholic groups staged protests against her for being a bad influence on the youth, with her “blasphemous songs” and for being “a symbol of everything that is corrupt and demonic.” A local politician threatened Lady Gaga and concert organizers that they can be “punished for offending race or religion.”

¹⁵In November 2017, a Twitter mob was created surrounding claims that certain bands and male musicians would take advantage of female fans who would go to their gigs. Claims spanned everything from being “too flirtatious” to being “too touchy,” to having been stringed along by band members and being set-up for heartbreak, to actual allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. The bands were cancelled on Twitter, mainstream media carried the stories, and the musicians lost, not just their gigs but also their dayjobs.

¹⁶In March 2021, the new art exhibit “Kundiman” of celebrity and visual artist Solenn Heussaff, released a promotional photo that received public backlash. The image showed the artist sitting on a chair, with her painting as backdrop and beneath her a rug that was part of the exhibition. The whole photo has a backdrop an impoverished urban area in Manila. The online mob adjudged the image as “poverty porn,” and presumed the same of her art. Solenn and her exhibit was promptly cancelled on social media.

¹⁷In July 2021, visual artist Chalk Zaldivar’s exhibit “Itaga Mo Sa Bato” came under fire. An exhibit of different gravestones that had different statements that sought to poke fun at “elitism, vanity and social media culture,” LGBTQIA+ organizations took offense at statements that they asserted further endangered their community, as “satire lost on the people will be the weapon of the oppressor.”

¹⁸In 2010, the installation “Poleteismo” by Mideo Cruz was part of the group exhibit “Kulo” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). An investigative show on ABS-CBN did a report on the installation, framing it as an anti-Church, pro-Reproductive Health Law installation. The public outcry from Catholic groups, conservatives, civil society, and even Imelda Marcos, was enough for the CCP to pull down not just the installation, but the whole exhibition, claiming “safety issues.” 

¹⁹In 2010, Carlos Celdran mounted his protest at the Manila Cathedral during a Catholic mass with the clergy present. In 2013, he is charged with “offending religious feelings.” In 2018, he is found guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, which states that engaging in “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” in places worship or during religious ceremonies “can result in imprisonment.”

²⁰ In 2013, cartoonist Pol Medina Jr. had a comic strip published in his regular space in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), where he mentions one particular exclusive Catholic girls’ school for the normalcy of lesbian relationships among its students and asks cheekily if it’s possible that even the nuns in the school are lesbians. Expectedly, the school demanded an explanation for the publication of the strip, but the public outcry became primarily about the acceptance or lack of it of lesbian relationships, within the school and beyond. PDI admits to have mistakenly published the strip, which had been rejected earlier in the year, precisely because of its sensitive content. Medina resigns from the newspaper that had carried his strip for 25 years.

²¹In 2018, news of the Netflix premier of the Brillante Mendoza series “Amo,” which was framed as a series on the necessity of Duterte’s drug war, was met with calls for a pull out. Thirteen human rights organizations, speaking for victims of Duterte’s drug war, demanded that Netflix cancel the show as it "aims to justify extrajudicial killings." They “demanded accountability <from Netflix> for being complicit in spreading Duterte's propaganda."

This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator.

About the author(s)

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an essayist, cultural critic, opinion writer, and book author from Manila, with a decade of work in print and online. Her role as critic has fueled her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions, and institutional crises. She is a teacher at the College of Saint Benilde’s School of Arts, Culture, and Performance, book maker at small press Everything's Fine, and is a contributor to the International Association of Theater Critics’s online platform, Critical Stages. She founded People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action-PAGASAph that seeks to provide the space for political action from younger civil society actors. She is part of the 2021 cohort of the Feminist Journalist Project of the Association of Women's Rights in Development, is a 2023 Public Intellectual of the Democracy Discourse Series of the De La Salle University, and is co-author of UNESCO-Germany’s Fair Culture Charter. She has been writing at radikalchick.com since 2008 and is @radikalchick online

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