The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.
In yet another blow to democracy in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte recently signed the controversial Anti-Terror bill into law on July 3rd. Since the bill was proposed, massive protests have erupted due to its unconstitutional threat to the right to freedom of speech.
When the bill was first passed in congress, the United Nations released a report on the already horrifying state of human rights in the Philippines. It estimates tens of thousands of deaths as a result of the extrajudicial killings since President Duterte entered office in 2016. He publicly endorsed extrajudicial killings as a part of his war against drugs which is a gruesome, rampant reality in the Philippines. In a country that is already so dismissive of human rights, the Anti-Terrorism Act is a chilling move.
Compared to the 2007 Human Security Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act broadens the definition of terrorism to target anyone who dares to advocate for human rights and, in doing so, speak out against the state that currently grossly neglects these rights. Under the overarching and often terrifying term of terrorism, the act blurs lines and justifies targeting activists by citing the supposed threat to public safety caused by activism. Of course, this implies that public safety is defined by blind trust of the politicians in power, even as they continue to fail the people. Anyone who even dares to speak up against the oppressive status quo can now legally be branded a terrorist. By encouraging fear mongering through this blanket label of terrorist, this act is primed to further stifle any form of dissent.
As it became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, this definition of terrorism can be wielded in dangerous ways. Even those who posted on social media to air their grievances about the government’s response to the pandemic have been arrested for inciting sedition. With the Anti-Terror bill now signed into law, the state has become even more emboldened in such blatant disregard for its civilians right to freedom of speech.
With the Anti-Terror bill now signed into law, the state is even more emboldened in such blatant disregard for its civilians right to freedom of speech.
The Anti-terrorism Act also allows suspected terrorists to be arrested and detained without any judicial warrants. Again, we can look to recent events to see just how dangerous of a reality that is. On June 26th, at least 20 protesters in a Pride march were arrested and detained. They were arrested under charges of violating public safety measures when in fact masks were worn and safe distances were maintained. In this case, even established laws are being manipulated to make an example of any dissent. With this new act in place, not only will it become easier to prosecute but there will be even more restriction against those peacefully practicing their freedom of speech.
As if this danger wasn’t enough, there are many more complicated elements to this bill that threaten the freedom of the people, making it easier to legally declare activist groups as terrorist groups and practice both mass surveillance and prolonged detention in the name of curbing terrorism. The outcry has been substantial as protestors braved the risk of arrest to march on June 12th, the day that commemorates the declaration of the Philippines’ independence from Spain in 1898.
“It will usher in an era ‘worse than martial law.'”
Experts are staunch in calling out the Anti-Terrorism Act for being unconstitutional and have been challenging it on those grounds since the President signed it into law. As we look to an era that has the potential to be “worse than martial law,” I cannot overstate the urgency of these petitions. As of July 8th, six petitions have been officially filed with the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
All of these petitions come from congress members who opposed the bill, some of the country’s foremost lawyers, university professors, and former government heads. While there are differences between which parts of the law, or for that matter the entirety of the law, are being condemned as unconstitutional by each petition, they all share one common, immediate goal: the law must be prevented, via a temporary restraining order (TRO), from being enforced starting July 19th.
The widespread harm that this act has the potential of doing, and the precedent of systemic violence that it would set, is a very real, intimidating, fear. It was not too long ago that the President put Mindanao under martial law in response to terrorist activity and the country saw just how devastating the increased presence of the military ravaged the region. Moreover, the memories of martial law under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1981 continue to haunt the country.
Each day there are new stories of the impunity of law enforcement. For every story we hear, there are dozens more that we don’t. Activists are being violently and systematically targeted. For instance, a 2018 report deemed the Philippines “the deadliest country in the world for environmental and land activists.” As for civilian awareness of such harmful injustices, a 2019 report cited the Philippines as the “fifth deadliest country for journalists.”
Clearly, both official law enforcement and the vigilantes involved in extrajudicial killings enjoy overwhelming impunity. With the Anti-Terrorism Act, even speaking about these injustices, let alone demanding a better system that doesn’t allow them to be repeated, could be easily branded as terrorism and therefore illegal. If we don’t fight against this act now, the Philippines will become a surveillance state of despotic leaders. Any country where activists are automatically considered terrorists cannot be considered a democracy.