In democracies, governments have a constitutional right, even an obligation, to protect the democratic order against the enemies of the state. In line with this basic principle, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo justified the imposition of emergency rule as a pre-emptive action against what she termed "the historical enemies of the democratic Philippine state."
Presidential Proclamation No. 1017 provides the legal basis for the emergency. It defines these forces as a coalition of "elements in the political opposition [who] have conspired with authoritarians of the extreme left and the extreme right, represented by military adventurists, who are now in a concerted and systematic conspiracy, over a broad front, to bring down the duly-constituted government."
Information regarding the persons who were behind the alleged conspiracy and the events that led to the imposition of emergency rule remain sketchy. So far, the government has not presented credible facts on the exact extent of the alleged "concerted and systematic conspiracy."
Not surprisingly, this, in turn, has fanned suspicions that the stated conspiracy is but a ploy with the prime motive to justify the repressive policies and intimidate the opposition. Adding to this scenario have been inconsistent statements from government and security officials regarding the exact degree and also the quality of the threat.
While the president's handlers spoke of power hungry rebels who were about to take over, the top military official disputed the notion that a power grab could take place.
"This is not an organized group. This is an action of an individual officer," said General Generoso Senga, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
"There is no coup," Arroyo's top military official added. "There is [only] an attempt by some soldiers to join the people in the protest rallies."
Among the first to come out in public decrying Arroyo's decree was former president Fidel Ramos. Until recently, Ramos was considered the president's most crucial ally. Less than a year ago, he helped Arroyo survive a concerted resignation call from the opposition and a sizeable portion of the business community.
"It is an overreaction, an overkill," an irritated Ramos said in a TV interview, suggesting that the president could and should have confronted the challenges to her rule by using the existing political and legal means at her disposal.
The appropriateness of state actions is one of the central canons of democratic governance. This basic rule applies to democracies in all parts of the world. The less government infringes on the rights and liberties of the citizens, the better the democratic quality of governance may be called.
From a democratic vantage point, it is always problematic if governments say they need to curtail democratic rights to protect democracy. Usually, this is the rhetoric of dictators and other authoritarian rulers.
Public statements that pay lip service to democratic ideals have little relevance as long as conditions exist that curtail basic freedoms. One such freedom, and a cornerstone of every democratic society, is the freedom of expression. The mere fact that the chief of the Philippine National Police went on record and threatened to take over media organizations that don't follow government standards indicates serious democratic decay.