Argument

After Signing Anti-Terrorism Law, Duterte Names His Targets

A supposed national security law in the Philippines is being used to silence dissenting voices.

Workers and supporters of the ABS-CBN broadcaster stage a protest in the Philippines
Workers and supporters of the ABS-CBN broadcaster stage a protest in Quezon City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, on July 6. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Rodrigo Duterte prefers to speak to his country late at night, when most Filipinos are asleep, leaving weary night-shift reporters left to parse through the Philippine president’s scattershot musings on the worsening coronavirus outbreak, the flailing economy, and a new anti-terrorism law which the United Nations and rights groups are worried could morph into an expansive attempt to crush government critics.

Duterte’s latest pre-taped address, which aired around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, was his first chance to speak publicly about the law after it was fast-tracked through Congress despite concerns over the constitutionality of provisions allowing an anti-terrorism council appointed by the president to authorize warrantless arrests, detention without charge for up to 24 days, and 90 days of surveillance and wiretaps. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has arrested political opponents, overseen thousands of extrajudicial killings in a brutal drug war, and heaped praise on former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, adding to the perception that the new law is the latest in an ongoing backslide into authoritarian rule.

“For the law-abiding citizen of this country, I am addressing you with all sincerity, do not be afraid if you are not a terrorist,” he said.

But the law’s vague definition of terrorism, experts say, leaves Duterte’s council even greater room to identify, detain, and eliminate the administration’s political enemies. And while the Philippines does face genuine security threats, especially among insurgents aligned with the Islamic State in the southern island of Mindanao, there is little evidence the new law does much to address them.

“There are no specific provisions about improving the intelligence and evidence-gathering capacities of agents of government,” said Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. “What the law does is to strengthen the powers of the executive-dominated anti-terrorism council, removing many of the oversight powers of the judiciary and the legislature.”

“The law,” she said, “has a chilling effect on various forms of dissent and legitimate criticisms of government.” The law is broad enough to permit the detention of people who make social media posts critical of the government, which has happened on several occasions during the pandemic. ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, was on Friday denied the renewal of its permit to operate, weeks after Rappler editor Maria Ressa was convicted of libel, in an unprecedented crackdown on media outlets critical of the government.

“The trials faced by Rappler and ABS-CBN show the government brazenly attacking media entities,” said Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The broader impact I anticipate is that, in the muffling of mainstream media and withdrawal of political dissenters, the content of public debate would be controlled by the state and more easily influenced by disinformation narratives.”

Local and international rights groups have raised concerns the law will serve as a gut punch to an already reeling Philippine democracy. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said prior to the bill being signed that it “heightens our concerns on the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism,” and international calls have grown for the U.N. to investigate extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Duterte has gained global notoriety for his “war on drugs,” which the country’s rights commission estimates has taken some 27,000 lives. In recent years, authorities have used drug war tactics to escalate a series of deadly operations targeting land, environmental, and Indigenous activists opposing government infrastructure and development projects.

Police and military maintain these are part of a counterinsurgency campaign against the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist rebel group that Duterte reiterated on Wednesday he considers to be a terrorist organization. But the operations often target civilians or legal activists who have been “red-tagged,” meaning branded as communists or NPA sympathizers, often without evidence. The new law could give Duterte and his council more room to weaponize the gray area between NPA rebels and legal, progressive activist groups who raise the administration’s ire.

Last year, dozens of farmers and land rights activists on the central island of Negros were arrested or killed in state security operations. Indigenous leaders throughout the archipelago are frequently red-tagged after campaigning against controversial China-funded infrastructure projects, including a series of hydropower dams set to be built on Indigenous lands that have raised environmental concerns and are funded by shadowy Chinese loans. Datu Jomorito Guaynon, a prominent Indigenous leader in northern Mindanao, has been imprisoned without facing trial for more than a year after opposing private development on his tribe’s ancestral lands. Throughout the Philippines, state operations against dissenters have continued during coronavirus quarantines.

“Government officials, including the president, have red-tagged a number of organizations already,” Atienza said. “Now, the anti-terrorism council can define who are the terrorists.”

Prominent dissidents say they are already feeling the heat. Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of the human rights alliance Karapatan, said she was confronted on Tuesday by two police officers, one disguised as a delivery courier, serving an invalid arrest warrant.

“This incident feels different, more threatening, because of the enactment of the anti-terror law,” said Palabay, a frequent target of harassment in the past.

The law was passed as a more wide-ranging replacement of the country’s 2007 Human Security Act, which only penalized direct terrorist acts and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Alongside its expansive definition of terrorism and the broad remit given to Duterte’s anti-terrorism council, the law allows for people who propose or sympathize with terrorism to be detained or charged. A petition by a legal group challenging the law’s constitutionality noted that the musician Bono, who paid homage to jailed opposition Sen. Leila de Lima at a concert in the Philippines last year, could be charged with terrorism.

In the short term, the law is most likely to be added to a toolbox used to target legal activists—and the Duterte administration, in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war, has plenty of latitude to use it. Beijing has invested heavily in the Philippines, despite broad public criticism and the potentially illegal nature of some of its big-ticket projects. Duterte’s own links to China have raised eyebrows: He is remarkably conciliatory toward Beijing despite his fierce nationalism, South China Sea island disputes, and the harassment of Filipino fishermen. And although Duterte has moved away from Washington, the United States retains strong relations with the Philippine military and continues to support its counterinsurgency campaign. In April, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump notified U.S. Congress of two potential arms sales to the Philippines, and Duterte last month reversed an earlier decision to pull out of a military agreement with the United States.

Palabay anticipates that, while she will continue to find herself in the administration’s crosshairs, the law’s most severe effects will be felt by Philippine society.

“I think human rights defenders, activists, opposition, and dissenters will be targeted, including those here in Manila, maybe even us in Karapatan,” she said. “But if there are attempts to silence these voices, it would still be the public who stands to lose much.”

Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large at Ketagalan Media. Twitter: @Nick1Aspinwall

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