Calling out FM Jr. on HR violations

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Almost a year after taking office, the new administration hasn’t taken any perceptible step towards making decisive, positive changes in the country’s dismal human rights situation. This is a major long-festering national malaise that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seems to be determined to ignore.

Let’s start with the media situation.

“Attacks on journalists which escalated during the six-year presidency of Rodrigo Duterte have not let up since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. [took over].” Dozens of press-freedom violations – with 75 cases from June 2022 to April 2023 – have been recorded, mostly under the new administration. Moreover, “systematic red-tagging” of journalists persisted, targeting both mainstream and alternative media organizations: ABS-CBN, GMA News network, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, Bulatlat and Northern Dispatch community newspaper, as well as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

The above data plus more were collated in a country-page media situation, included in the 2023 digital news report, released last Wednesday, by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. It was written by veteran investigative-journalist Yvonne Chua, now professor at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications.

Asked to comment on the report, Presidential Task Force on Media Security executive director Paul Gutierrez dismissed it as “false.” These “foreign orgs,” he said, “in their arrogance always believe they knew better than us.” However, while conceding that “media repression and killings remain a problem,” Gutierrez could only claim that the government is “continuously addressing these issues as evidenced by (FM Jr’s) decision to continue with PTFoMS [referring to his office].”

Earlier, on June 8, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) denounced what it described as “continuing censorship” under the Marcos Jr. administration.

Bayan pegged that accusation on the fact that the websites of Bayan and 26 other people’s organizations and independent news outlets have remained blocked one year after internet service providers were so ordered by the National Telecommunications Commission. The order was prompted by a “request” of then National Security Adviser and NTF-ELCAC vice chairman Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Without producing any evidence, Esperon alleged that the National Security Council (of which he was director) declared the website owners to be “affiliated to and are supporting terrorists and terrorist organizations.” He simply referred to the CPP-NPA and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines as the organizations designated as “terrorists” by the Anti-Terrorism Council (of which he also was a member).

Bayan said the NTC order “reflected the curtailment of civil liberties and the use of draconian laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020 to suppress dissenting voices,” and reaffirmed its assertion that the ATA would be “weaponized against activists and critics of the state.”

“Despite the change in government, the NTC memo was not reversed, which highlighted the continuing decline of freedom of expression under the Marcos Jr. presidency,” Bayan noted. It pointed out that the first law signed by Marcos Jr. was the SIM Card Registration Act, “which enables mass surveillance and undermines the privacy of citizens.”

The blocking of the websites, Bayan averred, was part of a “systematic campaign of vilification by state security forces aimed at invalidating the people’s struggle for social justice. It is linked to the default red-tagging policy of the state and the vicious hate campaign of its rabid cyber army of trolls and paid propagandists.”

“Restricting our websites will not silence us and the people’s clamor for change,” Bayan asserted. “The enemies of truth and purveyors of disinformation may think that blocking websites is an effective tool, but it actually exposes the undemocratic governance, irrational paranoia and tyrannical bent of the Marcos Jr. presidency.”

Vowing that Bayan and its allied organizations will continue to speak out and stand up for “genuine freedom and democracy,” the statement concluded by enjoining “all freedom-loving Filipinos to defeat the digital authoritarians and hardline fascists in Malacañang.”

Last Thursday, a Quezon City Regional Trial Court resumed hearing on Bulatlat’s petition seeking judicial nullification of the NTC order. AlterMidya, to which Bulatlat is affiliated, declared that “the alternative media community remains steadfast in its call to junk the blocking order as it brazenly restricts press freedom and constitutes an overreach that impedes the people’s right to know.”

In August, the court ordered the NTC to stop blocking Bulatlat’s website, underscoring the importance of preserving a free and open internet and the public’s right to know. However, it deferred ruling on the NTC blocking order itself. AlterMidya called on the court to rule positively on the Bulatlat petition “to establish an environment in which independent media grows without limitation or intervention.”

Meantime, human rights alliance Karapatan denounced the Kalinga Provincial Task Force-ELCAC for issuing a resolution “strongly urging all cities and municipalities of Kalinga to require all entities representing themselves as non-government organizations (NGOs) to secure permission from LGUs concerned before the conduct of any activity in the LGU.”

The resolution with a long title includes a list, supposedly issued by the Philippine Army’s 50th Infantry Battalion, of 18 Cordillera-based NGOs depicted as “sectoral front organizations” of the CPP-NPA.  Among these are the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (a Karapatan chapter), Cordillera People’s Alliance (a multisectoral formation) and Bahaghari (LGBTQ rights organization). Karapatan avowed that these organizations “have been instrumental in promoting and protecting human rights, especially of indigenous Cordillerans.”

Furthermore, these organizations have been involved, Karapatan attested, in education-training to raise the Cordillerans’ human rights awareness and provide services such as medical and dental care, access to clean water to under-served communities in the region; assist political prisoners, victims of torture and of displacement due to disasters, militarization.

“By red-tagging these organizations, the PTF-ELCAC…endangers them, rendering them more vulnerable to threats, harassment and intimidation,” Karapatan pointed out. It called on the Commission on Human Rights to look into this “latest attempt by the NTF-ELCAC and its subalterns to vilify and imperil people’s associations and movements.”

As head of the NTF-ELCAC, it’s now really Marcos’ call.

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