Protest murals defend labor unions, call to free political prisoners

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Protest murals defend labor unions, call to free political prisoners
Various artist collectives paint murals along the Katipunan wall of University of the Philippines in Diliman on Sunday, February 14, calling for the release of artists who have been arrested by the state in a direct attack against their activism.
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MANILA, Philippines — Activists went to Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City on Sunday to call for the release of people arrested in what progressive groups believe to be a government attack on activism and dissent.

The calls were not your typical protests, however. They materialized in the form of murals on walls outside the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman. 

"Free all political prisoners!" one of the murals read. "Unionism is not terrorism," read another.

Among those who included in the mural is peasant organizer Amanda Echanis, who was arrested last December and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Rights group Karapatan said last year that most of the more than 600 political prisoners in detention in the Philippines are facing similar cases. They said the cases are made up and raids are not conducted according to proper procedure.

Irregularities in serving search warrants led to the junking earlier this month of similar charges against journalist Lady Ann Salem and labor union organizer Rodrigo Esparago, who were among seven arrested in police raids on International Human Rights Day last December, supposedly for illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

The Mandaluyong court hearing the case dismissed it, saying there were questions on whether probable cause to issue it was properly established. 

RELATED: Court junks case vs two of 'Human Rights Day 7,' reminds cops to observe people's rights

Despite the junking the cases Salem and Esparago have yet to walk free, with prosecutors blocking the release. They said the dismissal of the cases are not yet final, an assertion that her lawyers reject.

READ: After Human Rights Day arrests, HRW says there is ‘damning history’ of cops planting evidence

Art as protest 

Although often dismissed as vandalism, murals and other forms of protest art are covered by constitutionally-guaranteed rights like freedom of speech, groups like Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA), an alliance of artists and peasant advocates, say.

"Street art is virtually accepted by the art institution, especially with famous artists like Banksy...and in places like Bonifacio Global City, Singapore, and Melbourne — street-art filled locations have practically become tourist areas," Donna Miranda of SAKA, who was among the groups present along Katipunan Avenue Sunday, said in an earlier story.

With "mass gatherings" prohibited under quarantine restrictions, activists have turned to protest art and other alternative methods like bicycle rides to air grievances and to call attention to social issues.

RELATED: There is more to graffiti than 'making a mess,' activists say

Around the world, protest art has been employed by mass movements in expressing political dissent.

In an article published by TIME Magazine, artists living in Yangon, Myanmar were documented crafting and later projecting satirical images critical of the country's authoritarian military junta. 

“What me and other artists are making right now is not art,” one Burmese artist was quoted by TIME as saying anonymously out of fear for his safety. “But it’s what the time calls for, and it’s what I’m feeling right now.”

Protesters gather next to a large banner consisting of artwork showing the moment Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing was shot during a rally against the military coup in Yangon on February 10, 2021.
Sai Aung Main / AFP

RELATED: How films and art can help protect Martial Law memory from revisionism

"Protest art in the time of narrowing space for free and critical thinking is not only just but necessary," Panday Sining said in December 2019, when four of its members were arrested over protest art to mark the commemoration of Bonifacio Day.

'An alternative language'

At an online press briefing held by human rights groups assessing the administration's performance in handling the coronavirus pandemic in April last year, Gary Granada of the League of Authors, Artists, Advocates of Public Interests highlighted the need to find other forms of messaging amid the prevailing political climate. 

"The challenge is finding an alternative language. Because this government has appropriate that, that kind of popular culture...it's hard to engage people who think they aren't our equals. I think, there are still many who can be engaged," he said in Filipino. 

The artist added that social media's intended design resembled that of "one big advertising industry," encouraging users to stay critical of staying within echo chambers that he said "divides people among categories and sensibilities."

READ: 'War' narrative in COVID-19 crisis fails to empower Filipinos, groups say

NUJP: Prosecutors cruel for blocking Salem's release

Earlier Sunday, the National Union of Journalism of the Philippines issued a statement calling for Salem's release and condemning the Mandaluyong City prosecutor's office "for cruelly continuing to block freedom" for the editor. 

"If anything, the judgment should be more than enough reason not only to release Icy and Rodrigo but also to hold accountable each and everyone involved in this clear attempt to pervert the law. Yet here we see the city prosecutor and police advocating double jeopardy!" NUJP's statement read. 

"To our mind, the law is meant to protect, not persecute, the people. Too often, however, it is turned into a weapon by the very people supposedly sworn to uphold it and wielded against those supposed to benefit from it."

with a report from Kristine Joy Patag and Ratziel San Juan 

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