Malacanang has once more urged Congress to pass an anti-terrorism bill. Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said that Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was commending the Armed Forces of the Philippines for its victories against terrorist groups, but that an anti-terrorism bill was still needed to prevent terrorist arms, funds and personnel from moving across communities. Such a bill is also necessary, Bunye added in a statement posted on the Palace website, to address the “terrorist threat” without having to resort to large-scale military operations.

Mrs. Arroyo was apparently commending the AFP for overrunning an alleged camp of the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu during a military drive to capture or kill ASG leaders and two Indonesian nationals who have been linked to the 2002 bombing of Bali, Indonesia.

Several anti-terrorism bills have been presented to Congress since 2002, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States that have been blamed on the Al Qaeda network. These bills have uniformly tried to define terrorism, create the legal machinery to prevent terrorism, and impose penalties on those who commit “terrorist acts.”

But almost uniformly too have these bills provided definitions of terrorism that can only be described as sweeping and dangerous. In 2004, House Bill 5923 described a terrorist act as, among others, “any act threatening to cause serious interference with or actually causing the disruption of a public transport or utility or an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private, except in the furtherance of a legitimate protest, grievance or advocacy.”

As has been repeatedly pointed out, this provision could be used to suppress a demonstration protesting excessive power and other utility rates, despite the phrase “except in the furtherance of a legitimate protest, grievance or advocacy.” (The police is the usual judge as to which advocacies or grievances are “legitimate”.)

Subsequent versions in 2005 retained this description. In addition they defined terrorism as “the use of violence or other destructive means to create public panic or individual fear, or to force the government into doing certain acts.” This definition could result in such acts as, say, stoning of traffic lights’ (as happened in May 2001 during the so-called “EDSA 3” riots) being defined as terrorism rather than as acts of vandalism against which laws already exist.

While anyone committing the above acts would qualify as a terrorist, so would anyone who contributes to the commission of such “terrorist acts” through contributions, harboring a terrorist, arranging meetings, etc.

A 2005 version of the bill creates an Anti-Terrorism Council. The secretary of justice may declare any group terrorist and illegal in consultation with it. Members of such groups would be jailed for six to 12 years for mere membership alone.

Suspected terrorists may be arrested without warrants, and can be detained for a maximum of 30 days without charges. Those found guilty of terrorism would be fined as much as ten million pesos and sentenced to life imprisonment or even death. The same penalties would apply to persons who threaten to commit “terrorist acts” as the bill define them.

The penalties go on and on, and cover those who propose to commit terrorist acts, or who do not divulge information they may have about terrorists and terrorism. In addition, the bill allowed the monitoring of private communication through wire taps, tracking devices and other means.

Every anti-terrorism bill so far introduced thus expands state and police powers considerably. They have dangerous implications on the exercise of free speech and freedom of assembly, as well as on the right to privacy (the email, fax, cellphone and snail-mail messages of a suspected “terrorist” may be monitored), press freedom (a journalist who interviews a “terrorist” could be prosecuted under any of the proposed bills). In addition, ordinary crimes already punishable under existing laws could be categorized as terrorism, and thus punished with life imprisonment or death.

But why the Palace insistence on an anti-terrorism bill, despite the fact that the Abu Sayyaf is no more than a nuisance? The apparent reason seems to be the opportunity such a bill would provide in further curtailing basic freedoms.

Since the flawed elections of 2004 the freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press have been the most problematic in silencing criticism of Mrs. Arroyo’s legitimacy as well as in suppressing information unfavorable to the regime (such as, for example, where the P8 billion Overseas Workers Welfare Administration funds have gone). Whatever bill is presented during the current session of Congress is thus likely to contain the same repressive provisions, given regime dominance in the House.

But does the country need an anti-terrorism bill? It does—but in combating state terrorism rather than the “terrorism” of groups like the Abu Sayyaf whose depredations are already well-covered by existing laws.

None of the anti-terrorism bills ever proposed addresses state terrorism as we’re seeing it now in the form of the unremitting assassination of students, farmer and worker leaders, doctors, priests and pastors, lawyers and judges, and honest and competent local officials by the scum of Philippine society (local ne’er-do-wells, hired assassins, and unreformed police and military personnel).

This terrorism— carried out systematically and with impunity, and directed against some of the best and brightest sons and daughters of the Filipino people– is exacting a heavy toll on the Philippine future by depriving the country of the talents and energies of those killed. It is a crime against the people a thousand times worse than any crime the Abu Sayyaf may commit.

Obviously there is a gap in the law that allows the killing of the best by the worst acting in behalf of the state. That gap must be found and bridged in an authentic Anti-(State) Terrorism Bill that would enhance individual rights rather than constrict them.

(Business Mirror)

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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