In late May, the Philippine House of Representatives approved the new 2020 Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) with overwhelming majority support. The ATB received tremendous backlash due to its vague clauses, with major opponents criticising its potential to limit political activism and the right to free speech. Outrage even took the form of protests in the streets despite the ongoing pandemic crisis.
The ATB was established to “clearly define the crime of terrorism to make the law more responsive to the threats of terrorism” and to “strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to surveil and prevent acts of terrorism”. It is an expansion of the in-place 2007 Human Security Act through the extension of the definition of terrorism to include (but not limited to):
● Any act that incites “death or serious bodily injury to any person;”
● Any “extensive damage and destruction” to government facilities or private property for the purpose of public intimidation;
● “[Creating] an atmosphere or message of fear”;
● “Seriously [destabilizing] or [destroying] the fundamental, political, economic and social structures of the country”; and
● “The threat, planning, training, facilitating of” and “proposal” or an “incitement” of terrorist activities through speech, writings, images, etc.
Even those who do not take any direct part in contributing to this definition of terrorism are liable- as long as one produces media “or representations tending to the same end”.
The ATB creates an Anti-Terrorism Council allowing authorities to arrest any person classified as a “terrorist” without warrant and can detain them without charge for up to 24 days. It additionally allows for suspects, even without evidence, to be tracked by a law enforcement official or a military personnel in secret using equipment or “technology now known or may hereafter be known to science . . . for the above purposes and private communications”, directly violating freedom of privacy. This has already occurred - an inside source has indicated that students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu have had their microphones and cameras switch on simultaneously following a socially distant protest against the ATB on 5 June. Further, with warrant and more concrete evidence, violators can be imprisoned for a time between 12 years until a lifetime sentence without parole.
The bill had its final reading and vote on 9 June. Between then and 9 July, President Rodrigo Duterte can sign or veto the bill at any moment to reflect any proposed amendments.
Opposition to the ATB
While the administration put this bill forward to strengthen the 2007 Human Security Act, its broad definitions can classify a bar fight or any form of dissent against the government (including jokes and memes) as an act or a threat of terrorism. Chel Diokno, a notable lawyer and advocate for human rights, has expressed that the ATB is “not about going after terrorists, but critics of [Duterte’s] administration.”
Opponents of the bill fear its vague definitions will lead to abuse by the state. Despite its protective aims, and Senate President Tito Sotto’s comments that it was never indicated that “activism is terrorism,” the following has occurred before and after the passing of the bill:
● Senator Leila de Lima was imprisoned for two years before a trial for criticism against Duterte’s drug war in 2017;
● The UN Human Rights Office reported that at least 248 political activists have been killed between 2015 and 2019;
● A salesman in Butuan City was arrested for a Facebook post where he called Duterte “crazy”, allegedly violating Section 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Law;
● 16 protesters in Iligan City have been arrested before even starting their protest on 12 June (although they have now been released); and
● UP student emails and passwords have been leaked, with some social media accounts being replicated, exposing their identities to possible theft and framing for “terrorist activity” as outlined by the bill, given UP students’ reputation for being politically active.
Given the history, Filipinos now fear that whatever they say can and will be used against them, even minor infractions.
Additionally, the government has been criticised for apparently prioritizing the silencing of its critics over addressing the current pandemic crisis. Protests and critics not only condemn the ATB but plead for the government to provide “mass testing now” to the Filipino people. As of 13 June, the Philippines conducts 4,419 tests per 1M people compared with the UK’s 94,811 per 1M. Whilst the Philippines’ cases are only a tenth that of the UK, this is due to a severe lack of testing and numbers may be as high if not higher than current UK statistics. The government has done poorly in addressing concerns over job security and healthcare access given the country’s low quality and quantity of social welfare, so the rapid passing of this bill comes across as a slap in the face for Filipinos.
Britons can help from abroad
Strong international condemnation from countries such as the UK will force Duterte to pay more attention to the needs of the people. If you can, write to your local MP asking for attention to be drawn to this issue, share this story where you can or sign this petition and help it get to 1,000,000 signatures worldwide.