Closing Minds, Closing Borders

Anti-Terrorism Legislation in The Philippines: A Plot of Its Own

Demonstration, Philippines
Anti-Terror Tool: A demonstrator in Manila holds aloft an effigy of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, depicted as a "robocop" fighting the U.S. war on terror (Photo: AFP).

Creeping up on the public, almost unseen, like a terrorist plot of its own, is a slew of bills pending in the [Philippine] Senate and the House of Representatives meant to counter terrorism in the country. These draft laws—two in the Senate and five in the House—appear to be reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, but mostly, they seem to be accommodations to the heavy-handed demand of the United States for its allies, under threat of sanctions, to bear down on terrorists.

The horror of Sept. 11 shook us all, but none as much as the American people. The nation with the most highly developed communications technology, weapons systems, and intelligence network in the world found itself suddenly vulnerable, brought to its knees by an elusive enemy that operated out of desolate caves and that probably sketched its plans on the desert sand.

America’s reaction to this public affront by terrorists was swift. It quickly identified its enemies and went after them with everything in its arsenal short of nuclear bombs. And it demanded that both its friends and enemies in the world do the same or risk being marked and targeted as coddlers of terrorists, if not terrorists themselves.

Treating the world like a schoolyard where it reigns supreme, the United States made up the rules for those who want to be on its good side—like the passage of laws outlawing terrorism, if possible patterned after the United States’ own repressive Anti-Terrorism Law. In addition, the U.S. Congress has passed legislation authorizing the United States to cut aid to any country that should ratify the Rome Statute, signed by 120 nations, calling for the establishment of an International Criminal Court to try crimes against humanity, which Washington has refused to join.

And so, a year after the Sept. 11 [attacks], the Philippines has not one but seven draft bills circulating in Congress, as our legislators scramble to please the big kid on the block. The bills, certified by the president as urgent, have agitated civil libertarians enough to sound the alarm about the dangers they pose to our freedoms of expression, assembly, and other basic rights. Edre Olalia of the Public Interest Law Center points out the “draconian” measures contained in these bills, such as: allowing or expanding the state’s powers to intercept all communications; conducting surveillance of terrorist suspects; freezing bank accounts; extending detentions without warrant to 72 hours; and undermining the right against double jeopardy.

It’s not only the activist crowd that is against the anti-terrorist legislation. Media practitioners have been spooked by the bills. Any of the pending bills will institutionalize in our laws the reversal of certain fundamental freedoms, says a group of concerned media groups and individuals led by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. They say the bills violate the provisions in the Bill of Rights, sacred to journalists, that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for the redress of grievances,” and “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized.”

There are jail terms and fines prescribed for divulging information about cases involving terrorism to the media, for reporting or filing “false information.” In addition, authority is given to the government to intercept communication, which, according to the journalists discourages “the exchange of information and makes it easy to fabricate charges against handlers, transmitters, and users of information.”

Equally disturbing is the definition of terms. S[enate] B[ill] 1980 defines terrorism as “causing or attempting or threatening to cause wanton destruction or 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.”

The military has, for many years, routinely classified the NDF, CPP, and the NPA [the National Democratic Front, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the New People’s Army] as CTs or “communist-terrorists.” With such a law, what will stop it from expanding its coverage of CTs to include street protesters and other noisy but nonterrorist citizens?

Since Sept. 11, in countries the world over, the Philippines included, people have accepted the suppression of civil liberties.

But a draconian anti-terrorism law could suddenly be upon us, like a sneak terrorist attack, if the public leaves all the vigilance to the activists and the media. By then we can only protest, under the extreme risk of being labeled terrorists ourselves. It will be too late by then.