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Clampdown on freedom of expression in Philippines alarms UN human rights chief

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
Clampdown on freedom of expression in Philippines alarms UN human rights chief
Shoppers sit on chairs as they wait for their turn to enter a grocery store in a mall in Manila on June 2, 2020, a day after the government eased up quarantine measures aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in the country's capital.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — The United Nations rights chief sounded alarm over the arbitrary arrests of people who criticize their government’s response to the coronavirus crisis or even simply share views on the pandemic in different Asian countries, including the Philippines.

In a statement, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Asian nations were suppressing freedom of expression and tightening censorship during the coronavirus crisis.

“In the Philippines, arrests have been made under new COVID-19 special powers legislation which criminalizes the alleged spread of ‘false information,’” Bachelet said.

She cited the provision in the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which penalizes spreading “false information” on social media and other platforms. Those found violating the provision may face imprisonment for two months or a fine of not less than P10,000. Courts may also impose a fine of up to P1 million.

This led to the arrest of artist Maria Victoria “Bambi” Beltran in April over a satirical Facebook post about the coronavirus situation in Sitio Zapatera in Cebu City.

In early April, the National Bureau of Investigation said they sent out dozens of “invitations” to individuals under its fact-finding probe into posts allegedly bearing false information.

The UN rights chief also mentioned the move of the Department of Labor and Employment to seek the deportation of a Filipina worker in Taiwan who is accused of making “nasty and malevolent” social media posts criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Taiwan rejected the move to deport the migrant worker.

While she recognized the need to restrict misinformation and disinformation to protect public health or prevent incitement of hatred toward minority groups, Bachelet said this “must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression.”

“In these times of great uncertainty, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest such as provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis and the distribution of relief items,” Bachelet said.

“This crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them,” she added.

The controversial anti-terrorism bill is now up for Duterte's signature after the House of Represenatives passed Wednesday the proposed measure, which is feared to infringe on people's freedom of association and expression. 

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

MICHELLE BACHELET

NOVEL CORONAVIRUS

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: December 12, 2021 - 1:10pm

President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Law on July 3 despite opposition from rights groups and civil society groups that it could be used to stifle human rights.

A petition against the law has been filed at the Supreme Court and other groups are preparing pleadings of their own.

Follow this page for updates. Photo courtesy of The STAR/Michael Varcas 

December 12, 2021 - 1:10pm

The Commission on Human Rights says it "partly welcomes" the Supreme Court decision that some parts of the controversial Anti-terrorism Law are unconstitutional.

CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia says the commission remains hopeful that the remaining contentious provisions of the law will be clarified by the high cour in the full text of the decision.

"At the same time, our commitment remains in guarding against possible human rights violations arising from the implementation of the anti-terror law. We steadfastly remind the government that countering terrorism and protecting human rights are not competing values but are, in fact, mutual and complementary," De Guia says in a statement.

December 7, 2021 - 7:10pm

The Supreme Court has deliberated and voted on the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act but the decision will be released "at the soonest time possible."

"However, considering that there were numerous issues resolved in the case, as well as the fact that each Justice had to vote on each issue, there is a need to accurately confirm and tally the vote of each Justice in order to ensure the correct resolution of the Court per issue," SC spokesperson Brian Hosaka says.

July 19, 2021 - 8:33am

The Anti-Terrorism Council designates the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the panel that negotiates for communist rebels during peace talks a terrorist organization.

Previous designation of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People's Army led to the designation of supposed members of the CPP's Central Committee. Among those designated as terorrists were peace consultants.

Designation gives the Anti-Terrorism Council the authority to investigate and freeze the accounts of designated persons.

May 13, 2021 - 9:06am

The Anti-Terrorism Council has designated 29 people, including alleged members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army, as terrorists in two resolutions.

Designation allows the Anti-Money Laundering Council to freeze the assets of those on the list. 

 

April 27, 2021 - 2:59pm

Solicitor General Jose Calida tells the Supreme Court that the Philippines must have an Anti-Terrorism Act because of international obligations. 

Calida says "supervening events warrant ouright dismissal of petitions." He notes there are already cases involving ATA, such as case against farmers Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, and three individuals in Negros Occidental.

He says petitioners do not have standing to question the law since they are not directly affected by it.

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