'Critical but not seditious,' journalist, artists say of papers in halted Bulacan relief drive

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
'Critical but not seditious,' journalist, artists say of papers in halted Bulacan relief drive
Former Anakpawis party-list representative Ariel Casilao and six other volunteers of Sagip Kanayunan and Tulong Anakpawis relief operations were flagged down at a checkpoint in Norzagaray town Sunday morning.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Handout

MANILA, Philippines — Artists and journalists behind the materials confiscated and tagged by the Philippine National Police (PNP) as anit-government paraphernalia have staunchly defended their work, saying that being critical of government performance is not seditious.

This came after volunteers from Sagip Kanayunan and Tulong Anakpawis were flagged down by police in Norzagaray, Bulacan on Sunday while on their way to conduct their COVID-19 relief operation.

Police and the Department of the Interior and Local Government said the volunteers had  violated quarantine protocols, failed to present quarantine travel passes, and had "anti-government propaganda materials" that they said were to be used for an attempted public gathering.

Among these materials were copies of alternative news media PinoyWeekly and comic zines penned by members of peasant advocate alliance Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA).

READ: DILG to file raps vs Bulacan relief volunteers over 'attempted mass gathering'

Kenneth Guda, editor-in-chief of PinoyWeekly, pointed out that the publication "is a bonafide member of the Philippine press, and has been so since 2002, even as we proudly claim to be part of the alternative, or independent, media, in the country."

In his statement, Guda said there was no basis to arrest the volunteers and said that was done because they are critical of the government.

"We challenge [the Bulacan PNP] to fact-check every article on the old issues of PinoyWeekly that they confiscated from the relief workers. Our fearless forecast is that they will refuse to do so," he said. 

"We have not heard of any action the police has done to stem the distribution of fake news coming from sources friendly to the government or their institutions. Their apparent target has always been opposition voices or critically-minded journalists."

PinoyWeekly has received citations from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism for its reportage on issues affecting the marginalized.

For their part, SAKA told Philstar.com in a text message exchange that the confiscated zines were "foremost a primer on COVID-19 to help explain what it is" and not an attempt to incite people to rise up against the government.

"We stand that our zine, COVID primer is not seditious. It does not call for overthrowing the government," said Donna Miranda, SAKA spokesperson. 

Among those arrested on Sunday is former Rep. Ariel Casilao (Anakpawis party-list).

Anakpawis is a registered party-list that had been helping with relief operations through the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.

'Seditious, subsersive propaganda'

Both the Philippine National Police and the DILG condemned Anakpawis after the arrests, accusing them of attempting to conduct a mass gathering under the guise of a relief operation. 

RELATED: Kadamay unfairly blamed for Sitio San Roque protest, group and supporters say

This is not the first time the notion has been pushed by the government.

On April 1, residents of Sitio San Roque in Bagong Pag-asa, Quezon City held a spontaneous protest asking for food and aid that led to the arrest of 21 people.

Urban poor groups in Sitio San Roque said the protest was unplanned. The DILG said, however, that  "there's a political agenda to agitate and mobilize the people."

Malaya also previously said of activist groups that "everybody knows that that there are above-ground organizations considered legal fronts," caiming the the groups are working with communist rebels. 

"Both have the same intent, which is to overthrow the government. They wish to overthrow the government in order to implement their ideology in the country. I think that's also a threat to the state."

Malaya said the Anakpawis volunteers face complaints of allegedly violating the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act—which prohibits the dissemination of "fake news"—and Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code, which criminalizes resistance and disobedience to those in authority.

RELATED: During state of emergency, 'Bayanihan' Act allows imprisonment for 'false information'

Photographs posted by the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) showed articles with the hashtag #OustDuterte.

"The group carried with them anti-government pamphlets and tarpaulins believed to be used in their supposed mass gathering in the area with the aim to discredit government anti-COVID efforts," NTF-ELCAC tweeted on its official account.

"Anakpawis will have their day in court. The DILG assures them of due process. Let them explain in court," DILG spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said. 

"If this was truly a relief operation, why would they bring that many propaganda materials?"

'Critical, not seditious'

Athough mass gatherings are banned for as long as Luzon is on enhanced community quarantine, protesting, expressing dissent, or being a member of an activist group is not the same thing as being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines or of the New People's Army. 

In an earlier press statement, SAKA said that its comic book series was meant to educate farmers on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the wake of the cancellation of Summer Komikon 2020, the biggest and longest-running convention for comic books in the Philippines. 

The zine, which was released in cooperation with Anakpawis, is entitled, “May kumakalat na sakit. Kasabay nitong kumakalat ang kapabayaan ng gobyerno (There is a disease spreading. Government neglect is spreading alongside it)”

According to SAKA, the zine is mainly a primer on COVID-19, though it touches on how the pandemic is linked to gaps in public healthcare services and the country's political economy. 

“The zine reminds us of the crucial role played by the peasant sector as food producers in ensuring health for all Filipinos,” said Miranda.

"[T]he primer orients people with what the COVID lockdown is all about, what COVID-19 [is and] how to prevent and control spread of infection and asserts the importance of food security especially during times like COVID19 pandemic."

The zine, which was written by Angelo Suarez and designed by Clara Herrera, will be distributed online for free and included in relief packs distributed by SAKA and Anakpawis party-list.

While government reports have labelled Anakpawis and other activist organizations as a leftists group, the Department of Justice has previously stressed that membership in a left-leaning group is not the same as being an armed terrorist. 

"As long as activism remains in the realm of ideology, there is nothing to be alarmed about," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters in August 2019, when Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said the "Anti-Subversion Law" that outlawed membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines.

READ: 'Being leftist is far from being a terrorist,' Justice secretary stresses

Though the volunteers presented food passes authorized by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, these were still recognized as unauthorized food passes.

The national government has been releasing financial aid during the Enhanced Community Quarantine in Luzon, although the Department of Social Welfare and Development has admitted to experiencing logistical challenges in identifying beneficiaries for subsidies.

Local government units have also had varying levels of success in distributing food packs to residents affected by the weeks-long stoppage of "non-essential" work.

"Part of the relief operation was reminding citizens that government response to their needs has been lacking, especially for the marginal sectors that include the poor, the workers and the farmers," Miranda said in Filipino.

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