Last week was not a comforting one for democracy in the Philippines, with authorities filing sedition charges against 36 individuals including the country’s vice president, Leni Robredo, and seeking the passage of one of the region’s latest “fake news” bills. Also, the former police official who started the murderous “war against drugs” for the president has been appointed to lead an “independent inquiry” into it as the United Nations seeks its own probe.
The developments are the latest by the government of Rodrigo R. Duterte that are regarded by critics as an inexorable path to repression to a great extent resembling the discredited Marcos government, which was driven from power by an enraged citizenry backed by the Catholic Church in 1986. Filipinos, the critics warn, should think carefully about the trap they are voting themselves into.
Since his 2016 election – ratified by midterm polls that wiped out all opposition Senate candidates – the 74-year-old Duterte has not only jailed former Attorney General Leila de Lima on dubious charges of complicity in drug deals but has used the impeachment process to get rid of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and replaced her with a Duterte ally. Sereno opposed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges whom he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests, saying the court could police itself.
He has used various laws to go after the most responsible critics in the press. He has sought to drive out Robredo and replace her with Ferdinand Marcos Jr as vice president.
He remains phenomenally popular with the Philippine electorate, however, with 85 percent of 1,200 adults surveyed saying they are satisfied with his performance, according to a Pulse Asia survey released on July 11, a reaction to his tough-on-crime stance in a country traumatized by decades of street crime and endemic corruption.
The sedition charges, filed on July 18, were aimed at some of Duterte’s most vocal critics, including – besides Robredo – Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV, four Catholic prelates and Sen. Leila De Lima, who has been in “pretrial detention” for two and a half years on drug peddling charges that are universally regarded as trumped up by rights organizations across the globe. Most of the 36 are members of the Liberal Party formerly headed by Benigno S. Aquino II, the previous president.
De Lima, named on sedition charges from jail, wrote a powerful op ed article that appeared in the New York Times on July 22 charging the president with having “unleashed a brazen assault on the country’s democratic institutions — at times, using his so-called war on drugs as a pretense for going after his political adversaries and dissenters.”
The fake news bill, introduced by Duterte ally Vicente C. Sotto III, is clearly aimed at Rappler, the popular online news site that remains the country’s most aggressive news source despite continuing efforts by Duterte to put it out of business via charges of illegal foreign ownership and tax charges.
The bill states the government “shall be proactive in preventing further exploitation of online media platforms for such purpose. It shall be committed to countering its concomitant prejudicial effects to public interest while remaining cognizant of the people’s fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”
On July 18, the police filed charges alleging incitement to sedition, libel, cyber libel, and obstruction of justice against Robredo and her allies, eliciting complaints from rights organizations that the president is seeking to persecute critics of his murderous drugs war, which has taken the lives of at least 6,000 drug users and sellers, according to the government, and 27,000 according to rights groups.
“The preposterous complaint against the vice president and the others is a transparent attempt to harass and silence critics of President Duterte’s bloody ‘drug war,’ said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Threatening criminal charges against the vice president, outspoken bishops, and rights lawyers suggests that Duterte’s egregious human rights record is catching up with him.”
The sedition charge is aimed at four Catholic bishops and three priests who have become increasingly critical of the Duterte administration, and a former education secretary and Lasallian brother, Armin Luistro. Others named were Chel Diokno, the president of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and a human rights lawyer and FLAG official, Theodore Te. FLAG has assisted families of victims of “drug war” killings. Other members and officials of the Liberal Party were named, including Senators Risa Hontiveros, de Lima and the party’s full senatorial slate in the May elections.
The complaint purportedly stems from allegations by a one-time drug dealer named Peter Advincula who uploaded a video under the name “Bicoy” charging that Robredo and others were plotting Duterte’s ouster by falsely connecting him to the drug trade In the video a hooded man is shown accusing Duterte, his family, and close associates of links to drug kingpins.
The Duterte administration earlier denounced the allegation, calling Advincula’s statement unreliable. Critics believe the Bicoy episode was created to falsely identify Robredo and others as seeking to tag Duterte and huis family with the drug dealer label.
The complaint accuses the 36 people of “spread[ing] lies against the President, his family, and close associates, making them to appear as illegal drug trade protectors and how they earned staggering amounts of money.”
The government, Human Rights Watch charged, has “carried out a campaign in mainstream media and social media to harass, vilify, and intimidate human rights defenders, clergy, and journalists, most notably the popular news website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa. It has accused many of these people of involvement with the communist insurgency.
In response to the situation, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on July 11, calling on the UN human rights office to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines in June 2020.
“The sedition complaint looks like little more than a kneejerk reaction to the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on the Philippines,” Adams said. “Friends of the Philippines should not stay silent when the administration retaliates against those promoting respect for human rights in the country.”