No to assault on press freedom, no to de facto martial law

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Letter to the Editor

IT IS CAUSE for anger that six months into a pandemic and the longest lockdown in the world, Filipinos have neither pressing nor complete information in their hands.

There has been no communication even about how the government migrated us from one type of community quarantine to another and back again. Except for the statistics of the infected, the dead, and the survived — numbers we are left to accept blindly — there appears to be no roadmap to navigating the pandemic. The health sector itself — “Keep us alive. We are the last defense. Keep us alive.” — has long been pleading for one. But if the IATF has a playbook, only the IATF knows.

Yet the people, left uninformed and excluded from discussion of policy, are quickly labeled “pasaway” and, worse, blamed for the rise in numbers. With this, officials not only do nothing to quell the fear on the ground, they further add to the alienation between themselves and the people. Officials so easily forget that this is still a democracy, and that in a democracy those voted into power are mere representatives of the people to promote economic and social good and those appointed into positions of authority are simple extensions of a people’s mandate.

Officials forget, too, that a democracy — even during a crisis or, most especially, during one — requires that there be transparency, that there be accountability in governance. Which requirements are fulfilled only when there is throughout the republic free press, free speech, and free expression. The road is cleared for totalitarian leadership when people do not have these. Seizure of state power is made easier when people do not have the information, cannot speak out, and are hesitant to investigate acts of corruption and bad governance.

Government knows this.

The heavy hand of the state has long been manifesting itself. The feisty Inquirer was first to be browbeat publicly by the President. Then came the progressive social news network Rappler, whose offices are in constant threat of being padlocked. After a long, testy relationship with the President, multimedia pillar ABS-CBN was effectively eviscerated when a Congress subservient to the President denied the network a new franchise. And returning to the scene is Red-branding, a terrifying practice by both the police and the military to suppress the media.

Cementing all this is the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Certified as urgent by President Rodrigo Duterte on June 1, passed by Congress on June 3 or within three fast days of Duterte urging it, and submitted by the Upper and Lower Houses to Duterte on June 9, the ATA was signed into law by the President on July 3, 2020. The bill moved into law with a dizzying energy uncommon to our lawmakers, and yet this is the law to kill free press, free expression, and free speech in one blow. Already, 30 petitions — including one filed by Antonio Carpio, himself a former Supreme Court associate justice — have been brought before the Supreme Court questioning ATA on constitutional grounds.

As the petition of a group of journalists, academics, and lawyers pleads: “The protection of the Freedom of Speech is the one true constant in Philippine constitutional jurisprudence because it constitutes the cornerstone of our democracy. Without the freedom to speak truth to power, all our other freedoms mean nothing.”

We are not dismissive of the dangers that terrorism poses. We know them to be real. But already in place was the Human Security Act of 2007, which defined terrorism with particulars and whose sanctions were cognizant of human rights. That has now been repealed by the ATA of 2020. Execution is, of course, the ultimate test of any law. With the Human Security Act, there was at least the promise of power being balanced by accountability. With ATA, the government has given itself all the power but, frighteningly, none of the accountability.

ATA is de facto martial law — and this early it telegraphs abuse. So, we hold the line. We stay on watch.

Arguably a step as sinister as deposed President Ferdinand Marcos’s 1972 martial law, it institutionalizes a super body, called the Anti-Terrorism Council, populated by the President’s men, coming directly under the Executive Department, and answerable only to the President.

This is a Council with the power to designate who is a “terrorist” under a law so broad and nebulous that, under the wrong hands, anyone making noise can be said “to seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic or social structures of the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety.” Arrest follows.

Individuals questioning the government’s use of the COVID-19 budget, for instance, or groups protesting their hunger and lack of jobs under the worst recession in the country in 30 years — all can be arrested as terrorists just for making noise. As National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., vice-chair of the Anti-Terrorism Council no less, said one day after ATA was signed into law: “Kung tahimik naman sila, huwag silang mababahala.” (If they are quiet, they should not worry.” — Ed.)

The press takes a direct hit.

ATA’s Section 9 would penalize content, making a terrorist out of anyone whose writing “incites” or “invites” or “proposes” to someone else to commit a terrorist act. In other words, it does not matter what you wrote or what you intended, the Council need only decide that you are guilty of inveigling someone, and it can have you arrested. As a “terrorist,” you then have your assets frozen and your electronic devices searched and seized, as you are arrested without warrant and locked up without charges for up to 24 days.

Without question, all this has a chilling effect.

We, concerned members of the College Editors Guild of 1969-1972, are living witness to dictatorship. We made the willful choice in 1972 to keep writing. We stood witness to a country being run aground by a Strongman. We worked to get the information out there to a people whose constitutional guarantees had been wiped out by a Strongman’s absolute greed and absolute power.

For this, we paid the price. Our stories are many, our chronicles slim. In the book Not On Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened. We Were There., we managed to put together how our young lives were thrown off kilter, how we came under arrest and imprisonment, how we bore torture and exile, how our careers were derailed or crushed, and how our families paid the price with us.

Today, the signs are creeping up around us again.

We know that, once again, we need to safeguard our right to speak in every medium and platform. We know that we need to protect press freedom from every assault. We support those who have brought the case against ATA to the Supreme Court. We wait with vigilance and, even as we are angered by Malacañang and Congress failing us, we trust that the highest court in the land does the right thing. The very quality of our lives and the lives of those who come after us is at stake here.

We will not have de facto martial law. Not on our watch.

Concerned Members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines 1969-1972

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