Duterte Tightens the Screws on Civil Liberties

‘Anti-terrorism’ law starts to call up Marcos recollections, and not in a good way

The Philippines appears likely to descend further toward the authoritarianism that marked the 21-year-reign of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos with the predicted signing of anti-terrorism legislation that has met astonishingly widespread domestic and international objection.

The bill was transmitted to the president’s desk over the objection of opposition lawmakers, religious figures, press and civil rights organizations, a wide array of businessmen and legal scholars and university presidents and other critics who urged that it be delayed to give time for representatives and senators time to reconsider their votes.

Although President Rodrigo Duterte had lent his voice to the bill, which the administration-dominated House of Representatives sent to him on June 8, the president has 30 days to decide whether to act on it. If he doesn’t act, it would become law at that point.  Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque was quoted last week saying it would undergo a “thorough review,” generating hope that enough public pressure could be generated to stop it.

Critics accused Duterte of using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to implement the harsh new measure, much as Marcos began to clamp down in the 1970s in the face of rising corruption, economic dislocation and student unrest.  Marcos blamed the Lopez family – the current-day owners of the powerful broadcast network ABS-CBN – for allegedly using their newspapers to raise political temperatures. Duterte similarly has engineered the suspension of the Lopez family’s franchise for its broadcast empire over the past two months. Eventually, Marcos’s presidency ended in vast upheaval that drove him from the office and country in disgrace.

Since his election in 2016, Duterte has followed a largely similar trajectory into absolutism, accused by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in a blistering 13,000-word report of “having run roughshod over human rights, its political opponents and the country’s democratic institutions.” His attacks on the press, particularly on the broadsheet The Inquirer, the popular news website Rappler and ABS-CBN, have been equally virulent.

The president has jailed his most influential opponent former Justice Secretary and Human Rights Council head Leila de Lima and scoffed at international criticism of his murderous drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of poor drug users while top national police figures have been implicated in covering up drug shipments. He has sought sedition charges against lawmakers who have opposed his key government policies, including an effort to bring back the death penalty.

Seven lawmakers are facing or have faced trumped-up charges. Senator Risa Hontiveros was charged with kidnapping after her office provided shelter to underage witnesses to the police murder of a 17-year-old in September 2017. She faced further “wiretapping” charges after revealing text messages in which a Duterte ally ordered cases against her to be “expedited.”

The administration has manipulated democratic practices to undermine the opposition in Congress. Lawmakers who opposed a move to reintroduce the death penalty in 2017 saw budgets for their home districts slashed to zero, while others were stripped of chairpersonships or membership of influential committees. In the House of Representatives, the Duterte administration manipulated rules to ensure that the official Minority (or opposition) bloc - which should be an important check and balance on the executive - was essentially only composed of pro-government lawmakers.

Among critics of the legislation are business organizations such as the Cebu Business Club, the  Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines, the Investment House Association of the Philippines, the Management Association of the Philippines, the Makati Business Club, Philippine Hotel Owners Association, the Subdivision and Housing Developers Association and the Women’s Business Council Philippines, all of which signed an open letter condemning the passage.

Human Rights Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson called the bill a “human rights disaster in the making” and said it would “open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president.”

Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio charged that “Under the [law], “executive officials under the control of the President can order the arrest of any person even if they know full well that no crime of terrorism has been committed, that is, even without ‘probable cause.’ This is truly mind-boggling.” Carpio has raised the possibility of challenging it in court as it contradicts “fundamental constitutional rights."

Nonetheless, Duterte on June 1 certified in a letter to the Congress that that passage of the bill was urgent, short-circuiting a more thorough debate and prompting the House of Representatives to quickly adopt in full a version of the bill, which was passed by the Senate in February. It would replace the existing Human Security Act of 2007 and would permit authorities to arrest people it designates as “terrorists” without warrant and to detain them without charge for up to 24 days. Under existing law, terrorism suspects must be brought before a judge in three days.  

Those convicted on the basis of “terrorism” definitions would face up to life in prison without parole.

While the definition of terrorism also includes aims often associated with terrorism, such as seeking to “seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental social, economic or political structures of the country,” it does not require such intent. “By this broad definition, starting a fight in a bar could technically be classified as an act of terrorism,” Human Rights Watch said. Duterte has shown few compunctions so far about bending laws to his purposes.

The draft law also makes it a criminal offense to “incite others” to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end.” The law, which does not define incitement, poses a danger to freedom of the media and freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech. The Anti-Terrorism Council would be the sole arbiter to determine whether a threat should be considered serious. Those convicted would face up to 12 years in prison.

While the measure on its face exempts advocacy, work stoppages, and humanitarian action from the definitions of terrorism, the council governing the law possess powers to determine what constitutes a serious risk, undermining those protections.

Critics say the draft law also relaxes accountability for law enforcement agents who violate the rights of suspects. Over the years, the government has targeted hundreds of community activists, tribal leaders, farmers, environmentalists, trade union leaders, and local journalists with threats and harassment. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris based Reporters sans Frontieres have consistently described the Philippines as one of the world’s worst countries for impunity in murders of journalists.

As an indication of the breadth of the law, it also makes it a criminal offense to “incite others” to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end.” It doesn’t define incitement, however, providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech. The Anti-Terrorism Council would be the sole arbiter to determine whether a threat should be considered serious. Those convicted would face up to 12 years in prison.

The draft law also relaxes accountability for law enforcement agents who violate the rights of suspects, particularly those in detention for a deeply corrupt police force that ranks among Asia’s worst. Under existing law, law enforcement agents who wrongfully detain suspects can be penalized 500,000 pesos (US$10,000) for every day of wrongful detention. But this safeguard provision against government misconduct is excised from the new version of the law.

In January, Oscar Albayalde, the former chief police enforcer of the war on drugs, was charged with corruption for allegedly protecting 17 officers linked to the narcotics trade. Albayalde resigned in October after serving as the Philippines’ police chief for more than a year.  The United States has barred the thuggish former national police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa from entering the country, kicking off a furor in which Duterte threatened to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries.