UN rapporteur to gov't: Repeal Anti-Terror Law, Cybercrime Prevention Act

Ian Laqui - Philstar.com
UN rapporteur to gov't: Repeal Anti-Terror Law, Cybercrime Prevention Act
This photo shows UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan during a press conference in Manila on Feb. 2, 2024.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan on Friday urged the government to repeal the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020 (ATL) and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. 

In a press conference to conclude her 10-day Philippine visit, Khan called these “laws of concern” that threaten the freedom of expression in the Philippines despite the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to freedom of expression.

ATL and the Cybercrime Prevention Act, according to Khan, do not meet international standards. 

Khan initially discussed the ATL, outlining the provisions that authorize warrantless arrests and searches under this law.

“But there are many concerns that remain, in particular, warrantless arrests and warrantless searches and detention without a warrant for a period of time,” Khan said. 

The UN special rapporteur referred to provisions of the ATL which allows law enforcement to arrest suspected members of terrorist groups without judicial warrant and detain them for 36 hours from the time of the arrest.

The ATL, facing an unprecedented 37 constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court (SC), has been flagged by human rights groups and lawyers due to its loose definition of terrorism and the overbroad powers granted to its implementor, the Anti-Terrorism Council.

This was enacted during the term of former President Rodrigo Duterte when the red-tagging of activists and critics in the Philippines was most intensified, according to rights group Amnesty International.

Khan is the second UN rapporteur who called for the abolition of the ATL and the anti-insurgency task force National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. 

The call was first issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change Ian Fry in November 2023. 

Khan emphasized that despite the government's denial of a red-tagging policy, it is essential for authorities to establish a concrete policy to ensure that it is not employed against innocent civilians.

“I have recommended an executive order denouncing this practice and setting out very clear measures that can be taken to discourage disincentivize and discipline those who violate the policy,” she said. 

Decriminalization of libel

Khan also called for the decriminalization of libel with the abolition of the Cybercrime Prevention Act due to its cyber libel provision. 

The UN rapporteur described libel as “relics of the colonial past” which a “modern democracy” does not need.

“A criminalization of speech for libel is going out of fashion around the world,” she said. 

The Cybercrime Prevention Act, meanwhile, has been used against journalists instead of being utilized for other cybercrime offenses, according to Khan. 

“The other issue that I have raised is the Cybercrime Prevention of 2012, which, as I said, was designed originally to prosecute offenses such as cyber sporting, cyber sex and child pornography. But has been used to deadly effect against journalists, chilling freedom of expression, chilling media freedom, and particularly cyber libel provisions,” Khan said. 

The “chilling effect” that Khan referred to is the lengthy prescriptive period of libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act which has a 15-year prescription period due to the "Tolentino doctrine." 

This doctrine, in an SC decision, has been used to indict Rappler’s chief executive officer Maria Ressa in a libel case filed against her by businessman Wilfredo Keng. 

However, the SC abandoned the 15-year prescription period for cyber libel in an October 2023 decision, saying that the offense is the same as defined in the revised penal code but committed in cyberspace.

RELATED: SC: Prescription period for cyber libel is 1 year, not 12,15 years)

Before the inception of the ATL, the Cybercrime Prevention Act was the most contested law before the SC with 15 petitions challenging its constitutionality. 

Still dangerous for journalists

The Philippines remains a dangerous country to journalists as the killings of media professionals persist. 

Khan noted that violence against journalists and human rights defenders had been notably high during the Duterte administration. 

She highlighted that the trend remained disturbing over the past 18 months, with four journalists losing their lives since the commencement of the Marcos administration.

“We should not be able— one side, the powerful side usually, should not be able to call on the resources of the state to protect it while the other side is left without protection. And the other side, very often, are journalists like you,” the UN rapporteur said.

Since the start of the Marcos presidency, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines logged at least 109 incidents of attacks and threats against media workers. 

Khan also said that the government needs to strengthen Administrative Order (AO) No. 35, as impunity is still a major problem in the country.

“We must not forget accountability for past victims, justice for victims of the past,” she said.

AO No. 35 is a government mechanism that creates an inter-agency committee chaired by the Department of Justice, assigned to investigate extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and human rights violations.

Khan’s final report will be presented during the 59th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in June 2025, according to the Commission on Human Rights. — with reports from Cristina Chi and Daphne Galvez

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