Rights groups say community pantry organizers should be 'extolled, not vilified'
Residents get their own free food items at a community pantry initiated by some male college students in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday, April 18, 2021. The students received canned goods and other grocery items as well as assorted fruits and vegetables from local farmers at the province’s Nueva Vizcaya Agricultural Terminal.
The STAR/Victor Martin

Rights groups say community pantry organizers should be 'extolled, not vilified'

(Philstar.com) - April 20, 2021 - 3:21pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 6:37 p.m.) — Community pantries that feed Filipino families left hungry during the pandemic should be “extolled, not vilified,” the Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

HRW Senior Philippines Researcher Carlos Conde has called on the government and on State forces to stop targeting organizers of community pantries, some of whom reported visits by police. The government's anti-communist task force has also accused some organizers of having communist links, an allegation it makes freely and often against groups critical of authorities. 

Conde stressed that these community pantries “have been an incredible demonstration of compassion of Filipinos at a time when, because of COVID and the Duterte administration’s perceived inadequate response to the pandemic, many poor families are suffering from lack of food and household resources.”

The Maginhawa Community Pantry, the initiative that inspired food banks in dozens of communities across nation, had to stop its operations on Tuesday due to fears for its volunteers’ safety.

Ana Patricia Non, who put up the table, showed screenshots of social media posts accusing them of links to community groups.

Other community pantry volunteers also reported that cops approached them and wanted to get their contact details and affiliations. Their posts have since been taken down. Two organizers Philstar.com reached out to have refused to go on record for fear for their personal safety.

Conde reiterated the dangers of red-tagging, the practice, which he pointed out, has almost exclusively been used to brand critics and activists. He stressed that red-tagging has resulted in threats and even killings.

“By vilifying now even ordinary Filipinos who only want to help, the government is weaponizing the ‘red-tagging’ to instill fear among the general public that is increasingly agitated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

AHRC: Statements and slogans at community pantries are protected speech

In a separate statement, the Ateneo Human Rights Center said it was baffling that the government has responded to the community pantries with red-tagging, the violation of privacy rights and intimidation.

"Although some people may see this community self-help as indicative of the lapses in the government’s response to the pandemic, the organizers and volunteers of the various community pantries that emerged around the country should be commended, supported and encouraged; and that the spirit of bayanihan must be replicated, as they address the most basic need of the vulnerable to survive, even if only means one day at a time," it said.

AHRC highlighted reports of police officers seeking the personal information of the organizers of the community pantries, saying the Data Privacy Act only allows the collection of private data for specific and legal purposes. 

"Just like the setting up of these community pantries is part of our freedom of expression, any statement that may come together with these pantries, political or otherwise, is likewise protected," AHRC also said.

"In fact, the bayanihan spirit of these community pantries is a political statement itself of how in dire need our fellow Filipinos are. And we admonish any curtailment of such statement."

The AHRC statement also included reminders to those organizing the community pantries:

  • Personal information is protected by privacy laws.
  • Permits are not needed for these community pantries since they merely serve as drop off and pick up points of charity; people drop-off donations and others pick up what they need.
  • If approached by law enforcers and asked for your personal information, know that you can: 
  • Ask for the identity of the police officer/s involved and take a picture of the identification card presented;
  • Ask for the reasons for data collection and for what purpose it will be used;
  • Decline to give your personal details if you are not comfortable;
  • Document what happened and take photos, if possible.
  • Report the incident to the Commission on Human Rights, media and local government units, (barangay and municipality/city).
  • In all instances, remain respectful but confident of your rights.

Karapatan to monitor reports of surveillance, threats

Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, in a separate statement, said the forced closure of the Maginhawa Community Pantry “sends a chilling effect on people who simply want to help or organize their own initiatives.”

Palabay slammed the red-tagging of Non, saying in Filipino “that the government has been making the people’s lives difficult but they have the gall to threaten [organizers].”

Palabay herself has long been subjected to red-tagging and has reported threats against her and Karapatan.

She asserted that organizing community pantries is not a crime, and assured oganizers that rights alliance Karapatan will monitor reports of police profiling and surveillance.

“We call on all communities to stand against these nefarious schemes that aim to stifle our efforts to help and support each other, especially those in need,” she added.  — Kristine Joy Patag with reports from Franco Luna

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