DILG: Anti-Terror Bill will not be used to silence dissent

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
DILG: Anti-Terror Bill will not be used to silence dissent
In this March 16, 2018 photo, militant group Anakpawis holds a protest in front of the Department of Justice.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman, File

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 6:33 p.m.) — The Anti-Terror Bill will not be used to silence dissent, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año on Wednesday said as he thanked Congress for working on passage of the bill.

He said that passage of the bill, which critics say is prone to abuse and allows authorities to hold suspected terrrorists for up to 24 days without a warrant, will not stop people from criticizing the government.

"As government officials, we are used to that. In fact, we welcome them because this is the essence of a democratic government," he said in Filipino in a statement. "There is no provision [to silence dissent] in this bill."

The DILG, in April, said it would file criminal complaints against activists who had volunteered for a relief mission in Norzagaray, Bulacan, saying they had attempted to hold a mass gathering and hand out propaganda critical of the government. 

The department's spokesman also said that same month that a spontaneous protest by residents of Sitio San Roque who were asking for food and aid was part of "a political agenda to agitate and mobilize the people." 

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

"The aim of the Anti-Terrorism Bill is to eradicate terrorism from our country. The people have nothing to fear from this bill; it is only the terrorists and their supporters who should fear it," Año said.

He also said that the bill "strengthens the power of law enforcers to protect the people from the threat of terrorism while safeguarding the rights of those accused of the crime.”

The Senate version of the bill, which the House has adopted, states that terrorism "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." 

The law, however, is prone to broad application, signatories of a joint statement against the bill said, pointing out that the government, even in previous administrations, “has used the existing offenses to inciting to sedition and rebellion to quell free speech and intimidate critics.” 

READ: Don't sacrifice rights in fight vs terrorism, government told

Robredo questions intent behind anti-terror bill  

Despite reassurances from the Palace and from the DILG, the proposed measure has been widely criticized. 

Its most recent critic, Vice President Leni Robredo, in a statement Wednesday questioned if quelling terrorism was the true object of the bill —  or if it instead sought to consolidate the state’s power. 

“Only one paragraph was allowed for the Program to Counter Violent Extremism. On the other hand, many of the provisions focus on expanding the definition of who can be labelled as a terrorist, and to lessening checks and balances against wrongful arrest,” she said in Filipino. 

She further explained that the law could be used to trample on citizens’ right to freedom of expression —  a sentiment shared by the Commission on Human Rights and other activist groups. 

"In the wrong hands — in the hands of people who have no qualms about using disinformation, inventing evidence, or finding the smallest of pretexts to silence its critics — this power is extremely dangerous,” the vice president said in Filipino. 

Robredo also raised her suspicions against the bill’s timing, saying the government should be “all hands on deck” in the fight against COVID-19. 

(Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the line "which critics say is prone to abuse and allows authorities to hold suspected terrrorists for up to 24 days without a warrant".)

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