Democracy is in Peril with the New Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020

By Edwin Quinabo

Filipinos around the world look to the developments unfolding in their ancestral homeland with great sadness and concern as democracy takes yet another hit at the hands of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

The new Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is a poorly crafted legislation, too sweeping, and purposely designed for abuse. The Act should send chills down the spine of every Filipino and must be challenged at all fronts constitutionally.

As of press time, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 sits on the President’s desk for signing, which is expected to happen. The next move is for it to be contested at the Philippines Supreme Court.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the country’s most powerful organization of lawyers, intends to challenge the Act’s constitutional limits at the High Court.

Support is crumbling for the Anti-terrorism Act as opposition mounts from a diverse group – businesses, universities and the Catholic Church. But with the Act already having passed both chambers of Congress and with only one obstacle left, the Supreme Court (heavily stacked by Duterte appointees), the situation looks bleak.

Why the Concern 
The most controversial aspect of the legislation criminalizes the “threat, planning, training, facilitating of” and “proposal” and “inciting” to terrorist activities by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, banners and emblems.

The language of the legislation is so blatantly and overly sweeping that even non-lawyers can look at it with shock and dismay, especially given the current context from which this legislation arises – at a time that press freedoms are being assaulted by a tyrannical, immoral, violent, and insecure president whose fascist tactics have brought him notoriety and shame around the globe.

How irresponsible for Filipino lawmakers to allow the Act to pass as written only to save their own political careers. Their timidity hammers down another nail in the coffin of a dying Democracy gasping for air.

Similar to the enablers of President Donald Trump in the U.S. – these lawmakers must be voted out.

Not only does this bill puts gasoline on the fire on the war already waged by Duterte on the Philippine press, allowing for more arrests and imprisonment of Filipino journalists, but the language of the bill puts demonstrators and even internet critics of the government at peril.

The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said the broad definition of “terrorism” in the bill “paves the road for possible abuse.”

It gives power to arrest and detain government critics under the guise of fighting terrorism.

It is “a human rights disaster in the making,” states Human Rights Watch.

CHR further states that previously sanctioned exercises of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution could be tagged as terrorist expressions.

It’s overreach, plain and simple; and undermines the spirit of freedom in the Philippines that has taken years to reverse since that country’s last dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos.

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) Chairman Peter Murphy said, “We are appalled that the Philippine government is giving priority to repressive legislation but remains bungling in addressing the pandemic. We have seen too many deaths both from the virus and the violence President Duterte has unleashed against his people.

“The proposed anti-terrorism bill is the last piece of the puzzle of the Duterte government’s martial law. President Duterte has repeatedly denied the existence of martial law during the pandemic, however, the rising number of activists and civilians being jailed, harassed, and killed says otherwise.”

The Act also curtails the right to due process. It legalizes warrantless arrests, detention for up to 30 days of suspected terrorists, and even wiretapping and other surveillance for extended periods of time, according to Murphy.

Convicted terrorists (so broadly defined that it could be almost anyone speaking badly about the government) could face a shocking life in prison without parole.

Senator Francis Pangilinan said, “Under the current authoritarian bent [administration], this will be open to abuse. In the context of what is happening in the country today…clearly, the direction is more towards repression.”

Track Record for Abuse 
The President has already shown sinister abuse in his drug war killings. The United Nations latest report found Duterte’s drug war since his election in 2016 is estimated to be three times higher than the government’s official figure of 8,663 killed.

Supreme Court must save the day
It is true that the Philippines has a decades-long problem with terrorism in Southern Philippines, the reason why such a bill reportedly was needed. But the Anti-terrorism Bill as written is too broad and undermines the Philippines Constitution. 

The reported “threat” of terrorism in the country must be weighed with precision. The Act just goes too far. It sets up legalized abuse for Duterte to exact revenge onto his political, media, even individual critics. This is practically the last stand to fight for democracy-loving Filipinos.

To justices of the Philippines Supreme Court, know that Filipinos around the globe are counting on you to save Democracy in our motherland. Do the right thing and rule this Act to be unconstitutional if it is signed by the President.

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