Only a day before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA), the Philippine National Police raided the office of Pinoy Weekly—a progressive magazine self-proclaimed as the “voice of the marginalized Pinoy”—and confiscated thousands of magazine copies.
The move is seen as attack of press freedom and stifling liberties, which many democracy observers have flagged as an ongoing issue under the Duterte administration. The raid is also a first in recent history, especially as the Philippines, before the current government, was seen as a beacon of hope for freedom of expression and democracy in Southeast Asia.
The SONA is an annual Philippine tradition wherein the President talks about the government’s recent achievements, reports on the status of the country, and proposes priority legislation for the coming year.
Pinoy Weekly Editor in Chief Kenneth Roland Guda in a statement said that at least eight police officers entered and seized thousands of print magazine copies from the local office of Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay), an urban poor alliance, in Villa Louis public housing in Pandi, Bulacan.
Kadamay members asked the cops to show a warrant, Guda said. But instead, Pandi police chief Jun Alejandrino, who headed the raid, “said the magazines were ‘illegal’ and that they should give up the copies or else ‘may mangyayari’ (something will happen)”, according to Guda.
“During the raid, Alejandrino said that the publication ‘teaches the people to fight the government’ and therefore is ‘illegal,’” the statement continued.
“It is up to our readers if after reading our reports they exercise their
constitutionally-guaranteed right to seek redress of grievances to the government. In any case, ‘teaching the people to fight the government’ in a lawful manner is still a constitutionally-guaranteed right,” Guda said in the statement.
The night before the raid, the cops also arrested without warrant Kadamay member Rose Fortaleza in the same housing unit the publications were taken from, according to Guda. The police said the following morning that the police apprehended Fortaleza for not wearing a face mask while the officers were patrolling.
Other organizations and individuals including the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and Altermidya condemned the incident, with some invoking the recently enacted Anti-Terror Law—which, while ostensibly aiming to give increased powers for the police and military to go after suspected terrorists, has sparked fear over its vague definition of “terrorist.” Many see the Act as a tool to silence critics.
Others said the incident was reminiscent of the dictatorship of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“The illegal confiscation of Pinoy Weekly on the erroneous ground that articles critical of the government are illegal and subversive brings us back to the time of the Marcos dictatorship,” Former Bayan Muna congressman Teddy Casiño told VICE News. “It is a portent of things to come under Duterte's new anti terrorism law where so-called subversive activities can easily be translated to terrorist activities and subject to warrantless arrests and seizures.”
The police however, offered a contradictory account to Kadamay’s statement. Central Luzon regional police director Gen. Rhodel Sermonia said that the Pandi Kadamay president Lea Maralit and six Kadamay members “voluntarily surrendered” copies of Pinoy Weekly magazines, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
PRO-3 Public Information Office said in a statement that Maralit herself “revealed to authorities about her fear that the subversive documents might be used during the SONA.”
Maralit allegedly told Sermonia that “the Kadamay group in Pandi has already pledged support to the government’s programs of ending the decades long insurgency and roadmap of lasting peace in the country," according to GMA News.
Pinoy Weekly, which has existed since 2002, is an online and print newspaper publishing stories and opinions of marginalized sectors of society, including workers, migrants, farmers, youth, women and more, according to the publication’s website.
Guda in his statement wrote that the Pandi officers are “grossly ignorant of the law,” and that the police chief is either “ignorant of” or “chooses to trample upon'' the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. He said that the eight officers committed not only an “act of tyranny,” but also because the magazines belong to Pandi residents, their seizure “may constitute robbery.”
The incident comes amid increasing attacks on press freedom in the country under the Duterte administration, including the shutdown of the Philippines’ largest broadcaster and the libel conviction of veteran journalist Maria Ressa in recent weeks, amid the pandemic.
Duterte’s administration, now in its fourth year of the President’s six-year term, has also been criticised by international groups for human rights violations, most particularly his brutal drug war that has killed tens of thousands of Filipinos.