POSTSCRIPT / July 16, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Restrictions made in COVID’s name

BEFORE Malacañang clarified it, the militaristic move to stop the resurgence of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) by sending the police to go on a house-to-house search for unreported cases, drew wide objections.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said Tuesday police officers and local officials would take patients with mild symptoms from their houses to government quarantine centers if isolation facilities were not available where they lived.

With lockdowns being loosened up to stimulate the faltering economy, an upsurge of cases has been noted. The spikes in infection and fatalities have placed the Philippines No. 2 (after Indonesia) in the Covid-19 tally of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The idea of the police knocking on doors was criticized as a variation of “Oplan Tokhang” that saw raiders rounding up persons listed in intelligence reports as users or pushers of illegal drugs. It also recalled an earlier “anti-tambay” ban on loitering, drinking, and smoking outside one’s house.

The general objection to the police rounding up patients from home revolves around Article III (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution whose Section 2 says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon lamented: “We have reached a crossroads in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic that our own government is set to flagrantly violate the very rights that we, the people, have always held to be sacred.

“Our officials have failed to flatten the curve even as we in the Senate have extended the measures they have requested to battle this crisis, they have failed, through incompetence, negligence and abject refusal, to do mass testing and extensive contact tracing.”

Reacting to the widespread criticisms, presidential spokesman Harry Roque clarified on TV the other day that patients to be fetched by the police from their houses must be reported either by their own families, their neighbors or the local governments.

“We don’t have a provision for house-to-house,” he said. “Only the political critics of the government, again, weaponizing this very important task of tracing.”

Many sectors have grown suspicious of the Duterte administration’s using the Covid-19 pandemic to gain gradual acceptance of draconian measures that impinge on civil liberties and, at times, stifle dissent and criticism.

Citing a need for lockdowns (euphemistically called community quarantine) to trace and isolate coronavirus infection, the administration has succeeded in curtailing normal movements of people and their gathering for the peaceful airing of legitimate grievances.

The administration must be searching for the balance between triggering a resurgence of infection and easing human activities that would restore vibrancy to the faltering economy.

Taking advantage of the acceptance of restrictions during the pandemic, the administration has maneuvered the quick passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act (RA 111479) stuffed with provisions regarded by its critics as of doubtful constitutionality. The new law that replaced the Human Security Act of 2007 is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The Duterte camp appears to be on a roll. On Friday, the House committee on legislative franchises killed the application of the broadcast media giant ABS-CBN for the extension of its franchise for another 25 years.

The action of Duterte’s supermajority in the chamber came after he announced on several occasions his wanting the network stripped of its franchise, at the same time advising the Lopez family that owns it to just sell out.

Emerging from that victorious episode in the House, Duterte told his soldiers gathered in Jolo on Monday that he was happy about his having succeeded in routing the oligarchs that he said were exploiting Philippine society.

One question being asked now by media, thought leaders and respected organizations is where this turmoil during the pandemic – the tightening restrictions, the assaults on the freedom of the press and the right of citizens to peaceably assemble – is leading the nation.

Among the feedback that we have received was an email of lawyer Romulo Macalintal suggesting that the ABS-CBN issue be thrown to the entire House and not decided on the committee level. He wrote in part:

“The preamble of the Rules of the House is very emphatic in that its Members will fulfill their ‘constitutional duty to make laws that effectively respond to the needs of our people and fulfill their aspirations for a just and humane society.’

“When the 70 representatives (in the committee) voted to deny the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, did they really fulfill their ‘duty to make laws that effectively respond to the needs of the people’ considering the 11,000 employees of the network who will lose their jobs and its effect on several thousand members of their families?

“Did they perform their mandates in compliance with ‘the rule of law and social justice’ considering that even a committee member reported that there is no evidence that ABS-CBN violated the laws? Should not any doubt be decided in favor of the accused?

“If certain officers of the network violated the law, the remedy is to file individual cases against them which should not affect the company as a whole under the elementary principle that a corporation’s legal personality is separate and distinct from its officers or stockholders.

“The House is now composed of 304 representatives from 243 districts and 61 party-lists. But those who voted on ABS-CBN’s franchise totaled 84 only: 70 No; 11 yes; 2 inhibited; and 1 abstained. A great majority of our people are asking: ‘What happened to our representatives? Did their votes reflect their constituents’ will?’

“There is need to refer the ABS-CBN issue to the entire HR membership or in plenary in the nature of an appeal. While such ‘appeal’ may not be in the rules, the House can always suspend its rules which it has done on several occasions.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 16, 2020)

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