POSTSCRIPT / July 7, 2020 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Spotty info hobbles gov’t in ATA debate

ADMINISTRATION officials are growing hoarse saying that if only critics of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 read the new law, they would appreciate how it could save them and the nation from organized enemies of the state trying to bring it down.

But citizens looking for copies of the ATA (RA 11479) signed Friday by President Duterte cannot find the complete text except by going to the Official Gazette. And who reads the gazette aside from its proofreaders and a handful of researchers?

We suggest that the proper government agencies wallowing in billions for intelligence and special operations flood the media and public forums with copies of the new law before they utter a word in defense of the ATA replacing the Human Security Act of 2007.

The Duterte administration’s public information problem is similar to the difficult task of combatting an unseen enemy in the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. Who has seen the virus or the complete text of the Terror Law they are talking about?

No wonder Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., national security adviser, kicked up a storm Sunday when he sounded like casting a blanket threat in an interview that critics of the ATA could be considered supporters of terrorism and the armed struggle against the government.

Such a scary view of the ATA adds to the widespread concern that among its draconian provisions is Section 29 that allows the warrantless arrest of terrorism suspects (even on mere suspicion) and their detention for as long as 24 days without charges being filed.

In a Dobol B sa News interview, Esperon said that the ATA does not target dissenters, critics, protest marchers, etc., citing the law’s Section 4 that lists acts of terrorism. Even a former armed forces chief of staff cannot just intone “Section 4” and expect the congregation to say “Amen”.

Those who fear the new law, he said in Filipino, include those who claim to be non-committal but are actually supporting terrorists and rebels. That remark unnecessarily added fuel to the fire.

He wondered aloud what law-abiding citizens were afraid of when, he said, the new anti-terrorism law is precisely for their welfare and security.

Before Esperon and other apologists went around to do their job, the proper government communication office should have propagated the text of Section 4 and the rest of the ATA.

That could have made easier their explaining Section 4 (e) which says “…terrorism as defined in this section shall not include advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights, which are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.”

With the text that clear (at least to this reader who is not even a lawyer) the next hurdle would be to convince a skeptical public that the police-military scaffolding propping up the Duterte administration would respect the letter and the spirit of Section 4 and the entire ATA.

Unfortunately for the administration, the action on the ground of the Philippine National Police does not seem to jibe with the claimed respect for the presumption of innocence and guarantees of people’s right to peaceably assemble and air grievances.

Reacting to concerns that the ATA might be used to target individuals who express dissent in media and other platforms, Esperon insisted that the law will neither restrict nor trample human rights.

Talking in Filipino, he said critics and protesters can march all they want with their freedom of expression intact as long as they do so peacefully. The problem we see is that that is not what happens when protesters gather in public places and the police swat them like flies.

Complicating citizens’ attempts to freely express valid grievances is the police use of restrictive Covid-19 protocol to disperse and arrest protesters for (some of them) not wearing face masks, standing close to one another, and other supposed violations.

The day before Esperon’s televised interview, he was also asked if social media activity may be used in identifying terrorism suspects. He said “Maaari”. (Possibly). He added in Filipino: “We will not immediately make arrests because we now have the Anti-Terrorism Act.”

On the offensive behavior of the police, the media are replete with detailed reports, supported by photographs and video recordings, of PNP anti-riot teams dispersing orderly protest marches, inflicting injury and other cruelty.

,,, to think that these physical attacks and apparent violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights are being committed by officers sworn to serve and protect citizens.

In the face of abusive display or over-flexing of police muscles against dissenters and protest marchers, how do we convince the public that the Anti-Terrorism Act that tightens the already restrictive Human Security Act will be a better and more humane law?

It is not enough for a Palace functionary to assure the public: “The Duterte administration stands with a firm position of undertaking stricter measures against terrorists… while maintaining the respect for human rights as we have ensured safeguards against abuse.” The government must act out its words.

To cap this, we quote a tweet that we posted Sunday: “GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY. The Supreme Court could use the hearing on the Anti-Terrorism Act to help wash away the mistrust, heal the divisiveness dragging down the nation, and help tone down the noise so we can listen better to one another.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 7, 2020)

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Dear Sir Pascual, The biggest problem, in my humble opinion, in this seemingly endless debate over the ATA is that it all looks nice on paper and even during interviews and press briefings but the reality (of what is actually happening in the streets and in mass actions) does not coincide. The text of Section 4 and what the Hon National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr was supposed to have uttered (in paragraph 5 of your column) directly contradict each other. As they say, Action speak louder than words.


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