Close this search box.

Opposing the PH Anti-Terrorism Bill and dissent as terrorism: Context and Campaigns

Watch and/or listen to EngageMedia’s Pretty Good Podcast Episode 2, where we film and interview the June 12, 2020 protests against the pending Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

With a presidential stamp of urgency, the Philippine Congress approved on June 3 the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 despite criticisms from citizens that the legislation is prone to abuse and grave discretion by law enforcers once passed into law. The pending bill, which needs only the transmission to and signature of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in order to take effect, will effectively broaden the definition of terrorism to cover those expressing dissent and criticism against government leaders and policies.

After massive public clamour from activists, celebrities, and ordinary citizens to #JunkTerrorBill, some lawmakers have since pulled support from the bill. The social media hashtag continues to trend as more celebrities, politicians, activists, and youth leaders remain vocal.

The pending act has been widely criticised for being a threat to free speech and dissent, whether online or offline, as its definitions of acts of terrorism remain vague and open to interpretation. Once this (who is or is not a suspected terrorist) is left to interpretation, activists and ordinary citizens raising concerns about the Philippine government can be subjected to warrantless arrests and imprisonment.

Fear of provision misappropriation is not far-fetched, as the country’s National Bureau of Investigation has been monitoring and arresting without warrant dissenters of the Duterte government. Under this same administration, suspected drug users and peddlers have also been summarily killed, among the “serious human rights violations …. including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent” reported by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Because of these precedents, the vagueness of the pending anti-terrorism bill may lead to lack of due process, police violence, and the summary execution of those they subjectively classify as “terrorists”.

Another major criticism against the pending act is its prioritisation at a time when the country is still fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has yet to give a comprehensive report on COVID-19 emergency funds spending, and the legislature is still slow to act on media broadcaster ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal.

The terror fine print: What is the issue at hand?

The proposed 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act … dilutes human rights safeguards … The vague definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act may violate the principle of legality.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which the Senate passed in February and the House of Representatives following suit, will effectively repeal the current Human Security Act of 2007. Criticisms have highlighted key provisions of the anti-terrorism bills that may be used against ordinary citizens, especially those who voicing out concerns about the Philippine government.

This includes two provisions:

  • Persons accused of committing terrorism can be detained without any warrant of arrest for 14 days, and can be later extended to as much as 10 additional days; and
  • Police and military can conduct a 60-day surveillance on suspected terrorists, which may be later extended to 30 additional days.

Surveillance activities include tracking down and investigating individuals and organisations, as well as tapping and intercepting written or spoken messages and other means of communication.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers also drilled down on the questionable provisions of the bill in a statement: “The bill which contains imprecise and poorly worded provisions on the definition of ‘terrorist acts’ and criminalizes threats to commit, planning to commit, conspiring or proposing to commit, inciting others to commit this rather vague concept of ‘terrorist acts,’ give the security forces, from the top honchos to those on foot patrol, the license to commit rights violations with impunity.”

‘Diluting human rights safeguards’: Who have spoken up against the bill?

Former Philippine Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno expressed concern on how the bill might impede free speech and expression of citizens: “When Filipinos vent their frustration in the only way they can go through social media, government should be careful not to repress the human spirit that must always find a way to express itself.”

Civil society organisations also released official statements condemning the quick deliberation and passage of the bill in both houses of Congress, and discouraging passage of the policy into law.

Here are just some of the statements released opposing the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020:

Acting against the bill: What can we do about it?

For those interested in joining the call to #JunkTerrorBill and protect Filipinos’ right to free expression and dissent, you can do the following to register your unity with the movement:

  • Educate your peers and colleagues about the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. You can use this citizen-generated resource or this primer from Foundation for Media Alternatives as reference.
  • Join online movements related to #JunkTerrorBill. Express your opposition and concern about the bill online, and participate in online activities related to the movement. You can join this channel for updates, and if you are from the Philippines, this application will help you contact your district representatives about the bill via email.
  • Encourage organisations and alliances to speak up about the issue. May you be from the Philippines or not, expressing your organisation’s thoughts and stance on the issue will definitely help out in making the case on why the bill should not be signed into law.
  • Spark cross-border conversations on how to promote free speech and dissent. Engage organisations outside your country on possibilities of cross-border collaborations to promote citizens’ right to free speech and why dissent is imperative in a democracy.

While the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 seems like an issue solely concerning Filipinos, the fight to keep democratic governments in check is a global responsibility. We need to rely on each other to make sure that our rights to free speech and dissent as global citizens will not be hindered by authoritarian policies and be branded as terrorism, as these are vital components of a democratic society.

About the Author

Vino Lucero is a Project and Communications Officer at EngageMedia. He is a journalist based in Manila. He is also the Chief Global Executive Director of International Youth United, a youth organisation aiming to improve youth participation in issues related to freedom of information, digital rights, peace, justice, and human rights.