The international human rights organizations Article 19 and Forum Asia met last week with the representatives of human rights and freedom-of-expression and access-to-information groups in the Philippines.

At that meeting those present agreed that recent political developments in the Philippines, particularly the government emphasis on restricting the right to demonstrate and its tagging dissident groups as terrorists, are endangering free expression as well as access to information.

The groups also agreed that the erosion of such rights as free speech and expression, a free press, and access to information is possible and has never been as pronounced in recent years as today, despite constitutional protection.

An authoritarian regime can develop and flourish without the benefit of a declaration of martial law among other reasons because of the corruption, unprofessionalism and incompetence of the police and investigative agencies, and the weakness of the country?s judicial processes, which in a truly democratic country would be the citizenry?s first line of defense against repression.

The Bill of Rights is particularly fragile. Despite the provisions of the Constitution and pertinent laws, the Arroyo administration has demonstrated that it can undermine the presumption of innocence by parading crime suspects before the media, and interpret the ministerial function of issuing permits for demonstrations as a license to curtail the right to free expression and assembly.

As disturbing as all these have been, the effort to institutionalize repressive policies through law and despite the Constitution is equally dangerous. The Arroyo government?s?and its same-minded allies in Congress??focus on using the campaign against terrorism as a means of silencing critics including the media is part of that effort.

There are at least three antiterrorism bills pending in Congress?attempts, apparently, to ?correct? what the Arroyo government has implied is the anomaly of the Philippines? not having a law against terrorism. All these bills have apparently been inspired by the United States? Antiterrorism Act, which penalizes the intent to commit terrorist acts and allows the US government to arrest persons suspected of that ?offense.? Senate bill 1980 was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Robert Barbers early this year and seeks to ?deter or prevent and punish terrorism by classifying terrorist acts as heinous and as crimes against humanity.? It imposes life imprisonment and death as well as stiff fines as punishment?not only on ?consummated acts of terrorism,? but also on ?conspiracy and proposal to commit terrorist acts,? in an obvious echo of the US law.

The same bill authorizes government agents ?to undertake secret searches of the homes or residences, and to tap or intercept and conduct electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists,? as well as to examine and freeze their bank accounts.

The bill pays the usual lip service to due process, and specifies the need for a court order before searches, wiretaps and other forms of surveillance can be undertaken. Philippine investigative agencies, however, have seldom had any difficulty in obtaining such court orders, among other reasons because those orders are easily obtained from police-friendly judges.

In the current atmosphere of antiterrorist, ?strong republic? hysteria, few judges are at the same time likely to question the validity of a terrorist tag on whatever individuals and groups whose homes the government says it has to search and whose communications it has to intercept.

There?s more. Section 7 of the Barbers bill also authorizes government agents to search private homes, and to monitor e-mail, text and other communications on the basis of the agents? claim that terrorist acts ?have been committed, are being committed, [and] are about to be committed.? Of particular interest to the thousands of mass, people?s, sectoral, and other advocacy organizations is Section 3, which defines terrorism as any act that causes, attempts to cause, or threatens to cause ?wanton destruction, loss of lives, liberties or properties through any means with the intent of sowing terror to the public, changing or impeding the operation of public utilities, or disturbing public peace and order whether internationally or domestically, or in the advancement of ideological, political, religious, ethnic or cultist belief, or any form of belief espousing any cause or purpose.? This section covers every conceivable cause. To condemn any cause as terrorist, government agencies need only to claim that it ?threatens? to cause terror by, say, holding a demonstration demanding lower electricity rates.

More recently introduced in the House of Representatives, but equally restrictive, are House bills 1980 and 3802, authored by Cebu Rep. Joseph Ace Durano and Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos.

Journalists and journalist groups should take special note of the Durano bill?s Section 21, which among others punishes with a prison term of one to two years, and a fine of P200,000 to P500,000 ?any person who, with malice, or in bad faith, reports or files a completely unwarranted or false information.? Who decides whether a report is unwarranted, malicious, or in bad faith? The police and other government agencies first, which may file a complaint to that effect, and the regional trial court later.
Under this provision, journalists could be haled into court for bad reporting, in violation of the protection of press freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

Like the Barbers bill, the Durano bill also defines terrorist acts in terms broad enough to permit the curtailment of the right to free expression in the form of, say, a demonstration to petition the government for the redress of grievances.

Section 4 says that an act of terrorism is committed by, among others, ?causing or threatening to cause serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private.? It does include the note that these should be ?other than as a result of lawful advocacy, protest, dissent or stoppage of work.? It is nevertheless sufficiently vague to provide government agencies an excuse to harass any form of protest including work stoppages in a private firm under the paid protection of corrupt policemen.

The Marcos bill is no less draconian, starting off with a definition of terrorism that government agencies can conveniently use against almost any group or individual it wants to harass, demonize or condemn.

Terrorism, says the Marcos bill, is ?an act of violence or threat thereof intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a particular person, or a group of persons for political purposes.? The bill does not define what ?a state of terror? is, and therefore gives government agencies the prerogative to do so. On the other hand, it defines a terrorist act as ?an act or omission committed or threatened in or outside the Philippines that is committed in whole or in part for a political or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and . . . with the intention of intimidating the public . . . .? This definition does not even include the use of violence in defining a terrorist act and, worse, penalizes with death a failure to act which results in the same consequences as a terrorist act itself.

The Marcos bill contains the same provisions authorizing wiretapping, searches and the interception of communications in the Barbers and Durano bills?provisions that give government agencies a wide range of options in invading the privacy of communications, and along the way seriously hampering the right to information.

There is no certainty that any of these bills will pass the legislative mill, prosper and finally be approved. Given the hysteria the Arroyo administration has fomented, however, some version or the other of these bills could pass, to the detriment of the Bill of Rights, and under whose provisions nearly every individual or group with any cause to espouse could end up with a terrorist tag.

(ABS-CBNNEWS.COM/TODAY, August 24, 2002)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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