Digital technologies, policies, and other measures of control were enacted during the pandemic. The justification was to increase public safety and guard a so-called ‘new normal’ of mandatory vaccinations, mask-wearing, and physical distancing. Today, the majority of the Asia Pacific has returned to the ‘old normal’, but the surveillance mechanisms – technological, regulatory, and ideological – remain.
This second compilation of the Pandemic of Control series focuses on the lasting impact of the COVID-19 crisis on digital rights and tells the continuing story of digital authoritarianism in the Asia Pacific.
A community radio in Guimba, Nueva Ecija, reported about the slow distribution of cash aid to the residents of the small town 154 kilometres north of Manila, Philippines, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. For airing the grievances of poor farmers, Radyo Natin Guimba faced charges of cyber libel, a criminal offence with penalties one degree higher than ordinary libel, and violation of Republic Act (RA) 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which provides the President with emergency powers in response to the health crisis.
The town mayor claimed that Radyo Natin Guimba violated Section 6 of the law, which penalises “individuals or groups creating or perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms” with two months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to P1 million (approximately USD 18,000).
The radio station maintains that the cases are harassment suits meant to silence their critical reporting. In February 2021, Radyo Natin Guimba filed a motion for reconsideration to dismiss the charges against them. As of this writing, the case is still pending resolution.
This incident is not unique to the Philippines, as the COVID-19 crisis extended into political and civic spaces. In fact, in a statement published in February 2021, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organisations.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Philippines underwent a power transition, electing a new president in Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. However, much of the authoritarian pre-pandemic policies of the previous administration remain in place.
Ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression
In the Philippines, some of the measures enacted at the height of the pandemic continue to be used to this day to repress freedom of expression, especially critical voices.
There have been multiple instances of state agents labelling legitimate reports and criticism as “fake news.” In June 2020, a ranking Army officer accused Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter Gabriel Lalu of “writing fake news” over an article about a farmer’s death. In a Facebook post, the Army officer asked Lalu if he was a propagandist for the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
In April 2020, the Philippine National Police arrested 32 individuals for spreading “fake news” via social media platforms. They were charged with unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterance under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code and violation of Republic Act 10175 or the Anti-Cybercrime Prevention Act. One of those arrested was Juliet Espinoza, a public school teacher who posted on Facebook that the people in General Santos City were going hungry.
Journalists and advocates argued that the “fake news” provision in RA 11469 might “criminalise free speech.” In a joint statement, they pointed out: “In effect, the law will leave it up to the government to be the arbiter of what is true or false, a prospect that cannot invite confidence given the fact that many administration officials, including the chief executive, have been sources of disinformation and misinformation.”
The effectivity of RA 11469 ended in June 2020. However, the use of this law to restrict freedom of expression during the pandemic is paving the way for normalising ongoing restrictions by enshrining this rights-infringing provision into existing laws. A senator has filed a bill seeking to amend the Cybercrime Prevention Act to include criminalising the creation and dissemination of “fake news.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) warned that the bill, if passed, might be used for censorship.
Legislated state terror
A more draconian law enacted during the hard lockdown in 2020 is the Anti-Terror Act (ATA). Critics pointed out that the law’s definition of terrorism is vague and overbroad, and may be weaponised to target the political opposition.
A broad coalition of organisations challenged the ATA, but the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law except for two provisions: the qualifier portion of Section 4, in which dissent would be considered a terror act if found to have the intent to cause harm or death. This was struck down by the High Court as it was “overbroad and violative of freedom of expression.” It also struck down a portion of Section 25, paragraph 2 which allows another method for designation.
Amnesty International said the law remains dangerous and fundamentally flawed, adding: “It [the law] grants overbroad powers to security forces to conduct surveillance, and to the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate groups and individuals as ‘terrorists’ without due process and without clear procedures to remove such designation.”
Nearly three years after its passage, the law has been used against indigenous peoples, farmers, and human rights activists. Some cases include:
- Aeta farmers Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos were the first to be charged with ATA violations. The charges against them were dismissed by a local court in July 2021, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.
- Two women – Elizabeth Estilon, 41, and Enriqueta Guelas, 62 – were arrested following a December 2020 raid in Sorsogon province. They were charged with violation of the ATA and illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Human rights group Karapatan said the evidence against the two was planted. The charges against Estilon were dismissed in February 2023 but the charges against Guelas remain pending, according to Karapatan.
- A few days after the charges against Gurung and Ramos were dismissed, four farmers were charged under the ATA in July 2021. The Philippine Army said Miguel Manguera, Fe Mariñas, Allen Mariñas, and Sherlito Casidsid were allegedly helping NPA guerrillas.
- A peasant youth organiser, Carlo Reduta, was arrested by soldiers in Quezon province in March 2022 and was charged with violation of the ATA and other criminal charges.
- Church worker Rev. Glofie Baluntong, who has been serving the indigenous communities in Mindoro, was also slapped with violation of the ATA in August 2022, a year after she was charged with attempted murder charges.
- In March 2023, Arnel Bueza, coordinator of the party-list group Anakpawis, was arrested in Taytay, Rizal over charges of ATA and attempted homicide. The charges against him were dismissed early this month, Karapatan said.
Terrorist designation and censorship
Aside from arrests, ATA empowers the Anti-Terror Council (ATC) to designate people and organisations as terrorists. Critics say this is prone to abuse, with activist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan describing the ATC’s designation as “arbitrary, no clear standards, no specific terrorist acts cited, just a sweeping accusation.”
In recent years, the ATC designated as a terrorist group the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), with which the Philippine government has signed bilateral agreements during the course of peace talks. Peace consultants, including those detained over trumped-up charges, were also designated as terrorists by the ATC.
In January 2023, community doctor Naty Castro who served the indigenous peoples in Northern Mindanao was branded a terrorist. Castro was arrested and detained over charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention but was eventually released after a court junked the cases against her in March 2022. Recently, the threat of designation as a terrorist has also been wielded against a politician, Negros Oriental 3rd District Representative Arnolfo Teves Jr.
The ATC’s resolutions have also been used as justification for censorship. In June 2022, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a memorandum ordering internet service providers to block 27 websites over alleged terrorist links. The NTC issued the memorandum after then National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, citing three ATC resolutions, wrote to the NTC “requesting” the latter to block a list of websites.
The majority of the websites in Esperon’s list are not even designated as terrorists, such as media outfits Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, progressive groups Bayan, Pamalakaya, Amihan and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, among others.
The blocking of the websites was done without prior notice or due process. Neither the ATA nor the Cybercrime Prevention Act contains provisions allowing government agencies to block websites. Bulatlat filed a civil case seeking the nullification of the NTC memorandum. The case is pending with a local court in Quezon City.
The restrictions and repressive measures imposed during the pandemic have caused a chilling effect on the populace. In an attempt to isolate and discredit critics and dissenters, government officials and their trolls on social media resorted to red-tagging and terrorist labelling, especially during the lockdown. Such red-tagging intensified during the deliberations for the Anti-Terror Bill, with those who were vocal in their opposition being labelled as communists and terrorists. Church leaders, journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and even artists were not spared from such labelling.
In the Philippines, red-tagging often leads to harm. Human rights group Karapatan said at least 427 activists were red-tagged before they were gunned down. Others who were red-tagged were also subjected to surveillance and experienced threats from suspected state forces.
New administration, same policies
Under the new Marcos administration, there seem to be no substantial changes in policies related to human rights. The ATA is still in effect; red-tagging continues, and so with the repression of free speech and expression.
In the President’s first 100 days in office, a new threat in the digital space loomed with the passage of the SIM Card Registration Act, the first law signed by Marcos Jr. Human and digital rights groups have raised the alarm over the measure because of its impact on privacy, data security, and free expression. Coupled with the ATA, human rights groups fear that state surveillance is complete.
These examples illustrate how pandemic-era measures, enacted at a time when the Philippines was occupied with containing a deadly virus, are now coming to bear on Filipinos’ civil and political rights. As the full impact of these policies – and the potential for abuse and misuse are becoming more evident – human and digital rights advocates in the Philippines will need to step up efforts to push back at these attempts to normalise rights-infringing policies.
Ronalyn Olea is the editor-in-chief of the Philippine alternative online news publication Bulatlat. She is also the Secretary General of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).