Guevarra says protests banned due to COVID-19 risk; rights lawyers argue otherwise
Activist groups marched from University of the Philippines Diliman to the Commission on Human Rights on June 4, 2020 to protest the passage of the "Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020."
Philstar.com/Efigenio Toledo IV

Guevarra says protests banned due to COVID-19 risk; rights lawyers argue otherwise

Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - June 11, 2020 - 3:22pm

MANILA, Philippines — On the eve of a planned protest against the looming passage of the anti-terrorism bill, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra asserted that mass gatherings such as rallies are temporarily banned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rights lawyers refuted this argument, and said that there is no law prohibiting holding rallies even during a pandemic.

Guevarra, in a message to reporters, said: “Solely for public health reasons and nothing else, mass gatherings including protest rallies, are temporarily banned to avoid direct transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”

Authorities have been arresting people, particularly those holding even small protests, since March for violating the prohibition.

“Violations may give rise to penal sanctions under existing public health laws. As [Interior Secretary Eduardo Año] said, there are safer ways to express one’s protest during this period of public health emergency,” he added.

READ: June 12 ‘mañanita’ protest: Only 10 allowed

The protest will be held at the University of the Philippines, Diliman campus, where the Soto-Enrile accord is in effect. Under the agreement between the UP and the Department of National Defense, police and military presence in any of the state university’s campuses is prohibited without authorization from and coordination with the UP administration.

The Justice chief did not cite which public health law he was referring to, but President Rodrigo Duterte cited Republic Act 11332 or the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act” in announcing the state of public health emergency in the country.

Duterte is also given additional powers under Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. The Palace argued that this law remains in effect despite a Constitutional provision that, "in times of war or other national emergency," legislators may grant the president powers which "shall cease upon the next adjournment of Congress."

RELATED: Duterte emergency powers intact despite Congress on break

Lawmakers concluded their first regular session last Friday, June 5, without passing the proposal to extend the Bayanihan Act.

Rights lawyers: No law can abridge free speech

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, in a legal opinion made public Thursday, noted that the 'Bayanihan' and 'Mandatory Reporting' laws do not prohibit rallies. “They do not have provisions allowing arrests simply on alleged violation of ‘mass gatherings or quarantine rules,’” they said.

A Norzagaray trial court judge ruled that RA 11332’s provision that “non-cooperation of persons and entities that should report and/or respond to notifiable diseases or health events of public concern” cannot apply for the “act of...staying outside their respective residences.”

RELATED: Court rejects 'non-cooperation' charge vs Bulacan relief volunteers

Norzagaray Municipal Trial Court Judge Julie Rita Badillo’s ruling on the case against activitists arrested on their way for relief operations, however, is not binding on other courts. The Department of Justice may still appeal the dismissal of the charge.

NUPL national president Edre Olalia also noted that “non-cooperation” in the law is “within contemplation of that specific law on Mandatory Notification is a duty on those who are sick or infected with the virus to disclose; or those who know anyone as such; or to persons or entities obligated to inform about it such as doctors, hospitals or local government units.”

NUPL also noted that the Constitution provides that “no law shall be passed abdridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievance.”

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta was asked during the CJ Meets the Press event earlier Tuesday whether there is legal basis for the government to prohibit the holding of protests when the public health emergency is in place, but the apologized and said he cannot answer the question.

Even with the statement from the justice secretary that protests are banned, Olalia said their rally will continue as set. He told reporters: “The people cannot be muzzled and put in an internet bivouac alone to express themselves.”

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