With barely a month left in office, Esperon red-tags independent news sites, 'attacks press freedom'

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
With barely a month left in office, Esperon red-tags independent news sites, 'attacks press freedom'
Protesters flash streamers, shout slogan while onboard their vehicles calling to junk the anti-terrorism bill during their picket at Congress last June 3, 2020
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 1:27 p.m.) — In what could be his swan song, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. has made a brazen move. He asked the National Telecommunications Communications to block public access to 28 websites for alleged links to communist rebels.

Esperon wanted to keep the public from accessing websites of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and of communist party founder Jose Maria Sison — both earlier designated as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council, where he sits as vice chairperson.

His list of groups "affiliated to and are supporting" terrorists include progressive groups and even independent news sites that have long been subjected to red-tagging.

As of Wednesday morning, some of the websites are already inaccessible.

Attack on press freedom

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines voiced alarm at Esperon's "irresponsible labeling" and the danger it will put the staff and writers of the websites listed in.

"Blocking access to these sites leaves a gap in discourse and in the flow of information and highlights the threats posed by the Anti-Terrorism Law on the freedom of information and on the freedom of the press," it said.

AlterMidya, whose members Bulatlat and PinoyWeekly are included in the request, also denounced the "stifling of our freedom and rights with such arbitrary claims, a trend that has persisted under the Duterte administration and if left unopposed could only further escalate with the continued implementation of the Anti-Terror Act."

"It sets a very alarming precedent for independent journalism and for media freedom," the network of alternative media newsrooms said, stressing that Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly are among the news sites that have long reported on people’s issues.

Pamalakaya, an advocacy group for fisherfolk, meanwhile said their websites are mainly updates on "plight and struggles of Filipino fishers in the West Philippine Sea."

BAYAN Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr., in a separate statement, said Esperon's accusations "are devoid of any due process and rely merely on guilt by association."

"No specific offense of evidence was ever cited to justify the blocking of Bulatlat et al except for the [ATC] resolutions that do not pertain to Bulatlat et al. This again highlights the dangers of ATL," he continued.

BAYAN and Pamalakaya are included in the National Security Council's list.

DOJ distances ATC from Esperon move

Under the ATA and its Implementing Rules and Regulations, designation only triggers the power of the Anti-Money Laundering Council to freeze the assets of the listed groups. During oral arguments, government lawyers reiterated this before Supreme Court justices and the DOJ affirmed this position on Wednesday.

Justice Undersecretary Adrian Sugay, also spokesperson of the ATC, said the department has always been clear on the effects of the designation.

He pointed out Rule 6.4 of the IRR that reads: "The assets of the designated individual, groups of persons, organization, or association under the Act shall be subject to the authority of AMLC to freeze pursuant to sections 35 and 36 of the Act and Section 11 o RA 10168.

But Sugay also pointed out that the request emanated from the National Security Council.

Esperon of the NSC is vice chair of the ATC. The DOJ is on both the Anti-Terrorism and the National Securirty Council.

Pressed if the DOJ was consulted on Esperon’s move, Sugay deflected and said the question should be referred to the NSC.

"If anybody should feel if anybody should feel aggrieved by any perceived improper use or application of any provisions of the ATA, including the provisions in designation, there are remedies under the law and judicial recourse is always available," Sugay added.

It is however unclear how the progressive groups and independent news sites can appeal this, since they are tagged as "affiliates" and are not designated terrorists that have the remedy of delisting under the IRR.

Outgoing Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said last week that instead of  baselessly labeling groups and people as fronts for communist rebels and putting them in danger of harassment and attacks, officials engaged in red-tagging should just file proper complaints.

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