The Philippines just approved a bill that many believe will allow the government to intimidate and punish its critics, amid a pandemic that is said to have been widely mishandled by the country’s administration.
On Friday, June 5, after the bill hurdled Congress, the only thing left for the bill to become law was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's signature. The controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 was approved by his allies in Congress in record time. Duterte had earlier expressed support for the bill and certified it as urgent, despite calls to focus on better pandemic management and addressing the economic impact of the coronavirus on the country instead.
The Philippines already has an existing anti-terror law, which the new bill will repeal. Critics claim the new bill vaguely expands the definition of a terrorist, gives the government more power to conduct surveillance and arrests, and proposes tougher punishments for suspected terrorists. Duterte will also have the power to form an Anti-Terror Council made up of cabinet officials, which human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares calls a “powerful junta."
"President Duterte can use the law against critics and dissenters and the opposition," Colmenares told VICE. "Because the definition is so broad, it can be used for anything under the sun."
But lawmakers who supported the bill criticised the previous anti-terror law, saying that it was too strict on the police and military.
“Terrorists or their supporters are the only ones who will be afraid of the bill,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III told the media.
The principal author of the bill in the Senate, Sotto defended it from critics and said that dissent and mass action will not be considered terrorism under the new bill.
“They think that if they oppose the government, they can be classified as a terrorist. No. If you want, you can curse the government morning, noon, and night, you’re still not [a terrorist],” Sotto said.
He said the new bill will strengthen the country’s fight against terrorism.
Despite Sotto’s assertions, human rights activists fear that the government seeks to weaponise the law. An online petition that advocates the junking of the bill, also argues that the new law violates the Philippine constitution as it “permits the warrantless arrests” of suspected terrorists, and is a “direct attack against [Filipinos’] academic freedom, right to organise, and freedom of expression to air out grievances” towards the government. The petition has received over 720,000 signatures as of writing.
The protests go beyond the online sphere. On Thursday, June 4, various groups came together at the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City to take part in an indignation rally attended by hundreds of people.
But the protests and attempts to change the bill have so far, fallen on deaf ears.
During the hearings in the House, amendments to the bill were ignored and lawmakers attending the hearing through Zoom were reportedly muted, discounting their opposition votes against the bill.
Because the Senate had earlier approved the same version of the bill in February, the swift approval of the House meant the bill did not have to go through extensive committee hearings.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Bill, suspects can be detained without an arrest warrant for up to 24 days, placed under surveillance for 60 to 90 days, and sentenced to 12 years to life imprisonment. The definition of terrorist ranges from anyone who joined a rally or donated to a non-state recognised organisation, to joining a gathering to plot “terrorism.”
Colmenares pointed out that under the bill’s broad definition, even the historic People Power Revolution that toppled then Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 could be considered terrorism.
“An act that was considered the world over as an act of courage by a people against a dictatorship is now a terrorist act under President Duterte,” he said.
“What if people hold rallies against him, asking him to step down just like Marcos? Is that illegal? No. That’s a constitutional right. It's not illegal for you to hold a rally asking the president to step down or resign. But under that [bill], they can interpret it that way.”
At least one principal author of the bill in the House also withdrew his support following the widespread backlash among critics and social media.
Muntinlupa Representative Ruffy Biazon voted against the bill a day after defending it because they were not allowed to make amendments on the Senate’s version of the bill.
"I defended the bill with all my mind, but my heart was divided," Biazon said, but added that he still believes there is a need for an Anti-Terrorism Bill. “I do not agree with all of those who spoke up against this bill.”
The new bill is especially concerning for activists because of what Colmenares cited as Duterte’s “track record” of harassing critics.
Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has threatened journalists, politicians, religious leaders, and activists who have spoken out against his policies, especially when it comes to the deadly drug war. Under the proposed bill, the Anti-Terror Council can also label any organisation as a terrorist group, and can then be punished with a freezing of its assets.
"What stops President Duterte from using that power to designate certain groups, including opposition groups, including political parties of the opposition?” Colmenares asked.
Even without the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the Philippine government recently shut down ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest news network, a company Duterte repeatedly admits to having a personal conflict with. Colmenares said that the Anti-Terrorism Bill only intimidates the media further and could discourage people from holding the government to account.
The approved Anti-Terrorism Bill follows other recent policies under Duterte’s administration that have raised concerns over human rights violations, such as strict curfews under coronavirus quarantine, warrantless arrests for lockdown violators, and the granting of special powers to the President to handle the pandemic, a situation some now call a “de facto martial law.” Government critics who posted their dissatisfaction with the administration have also been charged with sedition.
Since becoming President, Duterte has also received global condemnation for his drug war that has killed tens of thousands of people in extrajudicial executions at the hands of the police.