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Press freedom dips amid pandemic

IN SPITE OF THE PANDEMIC, so much is still happening in the world; and the Philippines does not fail to keep up with this—flooding the citizens with several issues and top concerns every day. This includes the hit on the country’s press freedom—with the ABS-CBN shutdown and the new Anti-Terrorism Law making it to the banner news. The blow on the free expression continues when more lives are put in danger as the red-tagging campaign escalates. These events give yet another sheer warning that the state of press freedom in the Philippines remains under threat. In fact, according to the World Press Freedom Index—which is managed by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders—the Philippines dropped two places in 2020, ranking 136th out of 180 countries.

Top broadcaster shuts down

The Philippines’ leading and largest media network, the Alto Broadcasting System and Chronicle Broadcasting Network—famous to many as ABS-CBN—was forced off the air in May after a long battle to renew its franchise has been denied. On July 10, the Philippine solons formally shut down the network after 13 hearings when an overwhelming majority voted to deny ABS-CBN’s application for renewal; 70 voted against granting the new franchise, 11 in favor, two inhibited, and one abstained.

The flagship station tried to renew its franchise many times since 2014, and Congress filed 11 bills seeking the renewal; its last approved franchise dated back 25 years ago and was due to expire last May 4, a day after World Press Freedom Day.

Without the backing of the Philippine government, the broadcaster couldn’t air content through its 80 television stations. The top network served as a vital source of news and information all around the country and was known for its critical reporting of the government, including its coverage of the so-called “war on drugs” which resulted in the death of thousands.

The controversy over the ABS-CBN shutdown heightened as Duterte publicly expressed his resentment when the station failed to air his political advertisement way back in 2016. This was followed by the President’s several speeches accusing ABS-CBN of fraud and bias and threatening the network to block its renewal of franchise in his succeeding speeches.

“The Philippine government shutdown of ABS-CBN reeks of a political vendetta by President Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened the network for criticizing his abusive ‘war on drugs,” said Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Paul Robertson. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines added that it was a “profoundly dark day for journalists.”

Millions of Filipinos considered this event historic, witnessing the broadcaster sign off after 74 years of service. 11,000 employees lost their jobs in the middle of a pandemic.

‘It will terrorize our people, not the terrorists’

Seeking to become “a measure that seeks to give the country more teeth to curb terror threats and acts,” the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 was signed into law by President Duterte last July 3. This new law replaces the previous anti-terrorism law known as the Human Security Act of 2007.

However, several human rights groups argue that “the Anti-Terrorism Law is a human rights disaster that will open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the President.”

“This law violates the Constitution and threatens our rights. It will terrorize our people, not the terrorists,” Free Legal Assistance Group chair Chel Diokno disclosed.

As stated in the law, it grants the police the power to arrest suspects without a warrant, and these suspected terrorists can be wiretapped for 60 to 90 days, detained for up to 24 days, and may be charged with 12 years to life imprisonment. Additionally, compared to the previous revision, the new law scraps off payment of P500,000 damages for wrongful detention.

Moreover, the law includes offenses as "engaging in acts intended to endanger a person's life," intended to "damage public property" or "interfere with critical infrastructure," where the purpose is to intimidate the government. The law also includes inciting others through "speeches, writings, proclamations, emblems, banners, and other representations tending to the same end" could be punished with 12-year imprisonment.

Many netizens have expressed their concern over various social media platforms especially Twitter, worrying that the definition of terrorism in the said bill is “too broad,” leaving the political activities, human rights defenders, and other communities in possible danger. In addition, several netizens also signed petitions and sent email protests to government officials expressing their opposition towards the bill.

As of July, the number of petitions versus terror law rose to 16. In fact, as early as March, around 80,000 Filipinos have already signed the online petition created by a group called Mass Testing Now PH. Aside from this, a petition has garnered more than 750,000 signatures worldwide that has been shared by international artists like Taylor Swift.

Soon, after raising concerns on social media, students, journalists, and activists who were against the law found “clone accounts” of themselves in Facebook, and even in some instances, reported harassment from these duplicate accounts.

On June 5, eight people were arrested by Cebu City police during a protest rally against the controversial bill for violating the general community quarantine ban on mass gathering; seven were activists—three were students and four were members of progressive organizations in Cebu—and the other one was a bystander. According to reports, the rally started peacefully until the protesters were chased by Cebu cops in combat gear and members of the SWAT team.

Furthermore, 11 activists were arrested in Cabuyao, Laguna exactly 24 hours after Duterte affixed his signature on the new law. The activists were part of a larger delegation who participated in yet another peaceful protest to condemn the signing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill.

Red-tagging: A red flag to free speech?

Human rights defender Teresita Naul, 62, was arrested in Lanao del Sur with charges of kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and destructive arson just two days after the nation had been placed under quarantine. Naul was a Bayan Muna member and a coordinator for human rights group Karapatan.

Authorities claimed she is a member of the New People’s Army, exposing her in front of the media as a high ranking official of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, Bayan Muna representatives Carlos Zarate and Eufemia Cullamat condemned the arrest, saying Naul has been with Karapatan for several years.

“While everybody is busy trying to find ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 here is the military continuing their red tagging and filing of trumped-up charges against the opposition and critics of the Duterte administration,” Zarate said. Cullamat added that Naul’s arrest was supposed to silence her from revealing the truth about the situation in Mindanao and remind those who forget to fight for their rights.

Moreover, according to people close to Naul, she has protected the poor and the marginalized throughout her life—advocating for their accessible healthcare along with other basic social services.

On June 23, several human rights defenders were again red-tagged. Balaod Mindanaw Executive Director Ritz Lee Santos III and other human rights defenders, who rallied against the Anti-Terrorism Bill, were linked to the Communist Party by a Facebook post.

In response to this, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) Executive Director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu said, “The inaccurate portrayal of Santos and other human rights defenders as members of the CPP-NPA is irresponsible and dangerous. This does not only endanger the security of these individuals, but also contributes to a culture of impunity. The government should cease its systematic use of red-tagging to discredit human rights defenders immediately.”

Furthermore, the United Nations Human Rights Office documented that from 2015 to 2019, more than 248 human rights defenders, journalists, and legal professionals have been killed in relation to their work. The report also said that the vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics are being “increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.”

The UN report was extracted from 893 written submissions, input from the Philippine Administration, police accounts, court documents, and interviews with victims and people involved.

Free speech is a universal human right. It is not something bestowed upon by the government, nor is it the privilege of becoming a journalist. As a matter of fact, free speech is the reason we have all the rights we talk about nowadays. For instance, women were not allowed to vote decades ago, and newspapers and broadcast stations were closed down during the Marcos regime—but free speech changed all these things. Therefore, defending this right is of utmost importance, especially in times of a pandemic when the masses rely on the media for information. Freedom of expression helps people speak truth to power and allows a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Press freedom is the very cornerstone of democracy, and taking it away also means taking away the power from the people.



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