This article discusses recent laws that threaten freedom of speech and the safety of students and universities in The Philippines. Rights! editorial board have taken the decision to protect the identity of the author of this article.
The Philippines has been making headlines internationally with rampant human rights abuses festering in the country. Ever since his election in 2016, President Duterte has waged a dangerous war against drugs, which has led to thousands of deaths, which has included the extrajudicial killing of children. This has increased even during the COVID-19 pandemic (Human Rights Watch, 2021) and it is not the only human rights issue that has sprung up during President Duterte’s term. Just last year, the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” (Bayanihan Act) was considered controversial for Section 6(f), which penalised the act of spreading “fake news”. The act lacked definition and clarity as to what is legal and illegal, thereby unnecessarily restraining free speech (Buan, 2020).
While the Bayanihan Act lapsed in June 2020, a more serious restraint on freedom of speech rapidly replaced it—the Anti-Terrorism Act, enacted later that same year. Opposition to the passage of the law pointed to the unclear and overly broad definitions of acts that could qualify as terrorism. Indeed, section 4 of the law states that an individual or group commits terrorism when he or she “engages in acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person’s life,” or “causes extensive damage to public property,” in order to “create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear.” The criminalisation of “inciting” others to commit acts of terrorism, without clearly defining what “inciting” would entail, leaves the law open to interpretation and potentially dangerous. According to Human Rights Watch, even “starting a fight in a bar could technically be classified as an act of terrorism.” It is therefore possible that this law could be used to unduly restrain freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, given its all-encompassing, vague and general provisions. Moreover, while the law does not require proof of intent for conviction, those found guilty of violating the Anti-Terror Act face life imprisonment without parole. As a result, prominent lawyers and human rights advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional.
However, it seems that the current administration has not finished capping the civil liberties of its people. On January 19th 2021, a University of the Philippines (UP) – Department of National Defense (DND) accord, that forbade the military forces from entering the school’s campuses without prior notice, was unilaterally terminated.
Protest, suppression and the UP-DND Accord
The UP-DND accord was a pact that has prohibited the presence of state forces on any of the campuses of the University of the Philippines system since 1989. The accord was originally conceived as a response to the abduction and arrest of a staffer of the Philippine Collegian. The objective of the accord, and the previous agreement, the Soto-Enrile accord, was to provide protection for students from the power of the police and military, as students engaged in protest actions and voiced their dissent (VERA FILES, 2021). Regardless of the importance of the deal to protect students’ freedom of speech and association, in January 2021, the DND claimed that this accord interfered with their duty to keep the university grounds and the people in it safe, and unilaterally terminated the accord (Magsambol, 2021).
The UP-DND was particularly important in times of protest and allowed UP to be a safe haven for student activists since the administration of President Marcos in the 1980s, a period in which numerous political dissenters were captured, tortured and killed. The Marcos regime was characterised by numerous instances of human rights abuses and corruption, made possible by a monopoly on power achieved through tax impositions on businesses and the plundering of public funds. In 1998, Imelda Marcos, the wife of President Marcos, was been quoted as saying (Pimentel, 2016),
“We practically own everything in the Philippines—from electricity, telecommunications, airline, banking, beer and tobacco, newspaper publishing, television stations, shipping, oil and mining, hotels and beach resorts, down to coconut milling, small farms, real estate and insurance.”
The government also took control of mass media. During the imposition of Martial Law in September 1972, the military was authorised to take over major media outlets all over the Philippines. Letter of Instruction No. 1, issued on September 28 of the same year, stated:
[I]n order to prevent the use of privately owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media of communications, for propaganda purposes against the government and its duly constituted authorities or for any purpose that tends to undermine the faith and confidence of the people in our government and aggravate the present national emergency, you are hereby ordered forthwith to take over and control or cause the taking over and control of all….for the duration of the present national emergency or until otherwise ordered by me or by my duly designated representative.
After the proclamation of martial law, arrests of journalists soon followed. Marcos was cognisant of the power the media had, and so he implemented orders that would ensure his control over it. In doing so, he successfully smothered public dissent while the media was under his control.
The situation now
These days, it is disheartening to note a repetition of events, such as the recent closure of major news broadcasting site ABS-CBN, which had not been shut down since the Marcos regime. Unsurprisingly, ABS-CBN has been known to closely document President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ and the extrajudicial killings associated with it (Gutierrez, 2020).
With so many political dissenters jailed, tortured, and killed, and with constant threats to free media it is evident that the Philippines is repeating its past and falling short of its international duties. In particular, the Philippines is in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and in violation of the following rights: the right to life (Art. 6); freedom from torture or ill-treated (Art. 7); liberty and security from arbitrary detention (Art. 9); and humane treatment while in prison (Art. 10). Moreover, these new measures contravene Art. 19 that establishes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”; the right of peaceful assembly (Art. 21); and the right to freedom of association (Art.22). Finally, the Philippines is contravening its duties under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).
In the light of the above and given the political history of the country, it should be evident how fundamental the UP-DND accord was. The accord acted as a safeguard of the ICCPR and UNCAT by preventing state forces from entering UP campuses, and thus protecting those who wanted to call out abuses. The termination of an agreement of this level of importance can lead to an increase in instances of human rights abuses and may enable more of the errors and horrors of the Marcosian era (Francisco, 2017).
The reasons given by the DND Secretary for terminating the accord were the protection of the citizens of the Philippines; with the contract itself labelled “obsolete” (Nepomuceno, 2021). Furthermore, the Defence Secretary has also claimed that this decision serves to prevent communist party recruitments that are apparently happening in UP campuses, despite there being very little evidence of this (CNN Philippines Staff, 2021; ABS-CBN News, 2020). The students of UP have long been targeted and ‘red-tagged’ by the national government as leftist activists, and the abrogation of the pact poses a danger to students who want to protest and use their freedom of speech. ‘Red-tagging’ suppresses expressions of dissent, leading to infringements on the freedom of expression, and worst of all, to extrajudicial killings of those who choose to exercise such a right. This is concerning especially looking at the current statistics on the death rate of activists in the country, with 248 killed in four years, from 2015 to 2019 (Human Rights Watch, 2020). According to a report by Amnesty International (2019), four activists were killed in Sorsogon City in 2015 due to being ‘red-tagged’. In June 2020, with the pending passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, seven students who were peacefully protesting in front of the UP Cebu campus were arrested (CNN Philippines Staff, 2020).
To remove the refuge of student activists by abrogating the UP-DND accord stifles the voices of dissent of numerous students. To suppress freedom of speech and expression by crushing dissent is morally and legally wrong. It also destroys the concept of academic freedom, a freedom protected by the 1987 Constitution and by Art. 19 of the ICCPR. Furthermore, the unilateral termination of the agreement contravenes Art. 1308 of the Civil Code of the Philippines, its termination may only be sought by a mutual decision of all parties, especially in the absence of an exit clause in the agreement. According to this provision, a contract “must bind both contracting parties; its validity or compliance cannot be left to the will of one of them.”
With the Anti-Terrorism Act enacted, and the termination of the UP-DND accord, the future seems dim for student activists in the Philippines. Dissent should not be seen as a threat to the harmony of the community—rather, it should be seen as the oil that moves the gears of a functioning democracy. Without freedom of speech and expression, it is difficult to hold the government, or anybody, accountable for abuses and violations of human rights. Hopefully, proper legal action can be taken in order to rectify these recent events in order to save the freedom of expression of the citizens of the Philippines. For now, oral arguments have commenced in the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the Anti-Terror Act, and the Commission on Higher Education has been facilitating sessions of peaceful dialogue between UP and the DND. In the meantime, students in the Philippines continue to fight for their rights.