With over 500 cases in the Philippines, the COVID-19 threat is already serious enough to concern everyone. But its unwanted presence has also further exposed Filipinos to the authoritarian virus that to this day has survived the 1896 Revolution, World Wars I and II, the EDSA civilian-military mutiny of 1986, and the untiring efforts of human rights defenders, independent journalists, committed artists and academics, civil society organizations, and social and political activists to combat it.
Although resident as well among the citizenry, the contagion is most visibly lodged in the flesh, blood and bone of the government bureaucracy. Its symptoms have several times been manifest during the present crisis. But so has growing resistance to it.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared earlier in March the lockdown of metro Manila to stop the spread of COVID-19. But instead of health personnel, he made it a point to have police and military officials prominently behind him. Not a few citizens concluded that it was to remind everyone that Mr. Duterte and his cohorts now control the coercive powers of the State and that he is prepared to use them. Human rights defenders went on to alert the public to the possibility of his using the present crisis to place the country under martial law and of the imperative of opposing it.
The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) immediately required journalists covering, or who intend to cover, the lockdown and events related to the COVID-19 emergency to obtain accreditation cards before they go about their job of providing the public the information it needs in this hour of national peril.
Journalists already carry press ID cards issued by their media organizations. That fact makes the requirement superfluous, unless the purpose is to limit reporting what’s happening only to those journalists and media organizations the PCOO approves of. Hence the protest of, among others, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
This is the same PCOO whose trolls, hacks and accomplices in social media, print, and broadcasting have accused independent journalists and their organizations of irresponsible reporting, and advocated their licensing by government. This is also the same agency that has been using public funds to tour Europe in “press freedom caravans” to convince various countries there that press freedom and free expression are alive and well in Mr. Duterte’s Philippines.
After President Duterte locked down the whole of Luzon, he announced on March 18 that he would address the nation, which many sectors thought would be on such urgent concerns as how the workers who’ve lost their daily wages can feed themselves and their families.
He instead used the occasion to warn local government executives not to do anything contrary to national government directives — as vague, as contradictory and as unsuitable to local conditions as those may be — at the risk of facing administrative charges.
The warning was apparently addressed to Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto, who has taken exception to the ban on tricycles on the argument that not only do their drivers need the work to survive; they’re also needed to transport health and other frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19 as well as the sick to hospitals, clinics, and dialysis centers.
Mr. Duterte is supposedly an advocate of federalism because it would enable local executives to more meaningfully address local concerns. But he has apparently become the champion of the presidential form of government he now commands but of which he was once so critical. Some lawyers, however, were quick to point out that his claim that the national government has control over local governments has no legal basis.
Several municipalities including Manila have declared a curfew. In the aftermath, the threat of arresting anyone caught outside their homes during curfew hours has fallen frequently from the lips of the all-powerful police and their military partners.
Missing is any mention of exactly what crime the putative offenders will be charged with. However, as the experience of activists who have been accused of committing common crimes from murder to child trafficking to illegal possession of firearms and explosives to kidnapping has time and again demonstrated, these experts in planting evidence can always manufacture something.
Both the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) also warned purveyors of disinformation (“fake news”) that charges will be filed against them under “existing laws.” Several bills have indeed been filed in Congress to penalize the generation and dissemination of “fake news,” but none have passed, among other reasons because of protests that such a law would lead to the abridgment of free expression and press freedom. Crisis or no crisis, the threat of penalizing people for offenses no law covers is evidently still first in the PNP and NBI’s list of scare tactics and priorities.
Using the same tactics, barangay officials in Sta. Cruz, Laguna crammed several young men into a dog cage for being outside their homes during curfew hours, and were rightly condemned for that brazen display of abuse of power and gross stupidity. The curfew being intended to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, crowding the young men into the cage defeated that purpose. But that was obviously the farthest thing in what passes for their minds, their focus being on demonstrating their power over the lowly.
In another display of petty power, policemen threatened to arrest a woman in Manila when she took photos of them out of curiosity over their unusual presence in her neighborhood unless she deleted the shots from her phone. She was outraged enough to post the alleged incident on her social media page. It’s more than likely that she was telling the truth. Policemen have become as camera-shy as criminals, because cameras have more than once caught their fellows in the act of breaking the laws they’re supposed to implement, as in the 2017 killing during a supposedly anti-illegal drugs operation of teenage schoolboy Kian de Los Santos, whose murder by policemen was caught on CCTV.
The name of the regime game isn’t public health and safety; and neither is it law and order. It is instead intimidation and control, not only over everyone’s mobility, livelihood, access to information, and free expression, but even more importantly over their very lives and fortunes by those who call themselves the authorities, whether president, Cabinet member, barangay official, soldier or policeman. But while the authoritarian malignancy has prevailed over the last three years, it may not survive the present crisis, so rapidly has resistance to it in various forms been growing during the COVID-19 emergency.
The defiance is there not only in some local executives’ insisting that they know best what’s happening in their jurisdictions and they are who can better address their problems and needs. It is also there in tricycle drivers’ plying their trade despite the threat of arrest, and in the determination of workers and the poor to feed themselves and their families.
But even more crucially is it there as well in the citizenry’s mounting anger. The streets may be empty for now, and silent. But the lessons this crisis is imparting, once the threat of the COVID-19 contagion is over, are unlikely to be so soon forgotten by the millions to whom the arbitrariness of power has so clearly demonstrated the imperative of political engagement, protest and resistance in the defense of their communities, their lives, and those of their families.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).