The Philippine Anti-Terror Bill: What Its Approval Could Mean for the Ordinary Filipino
A recap of the bill’s standout provisions and their implications
In the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic, where as of writing, the number of positive cases in the Philippines is at 25,930 and is still steadily rising, the government is working overtime to approve one controversial piece of legislation: the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
The proposed bill (that you can read here) seeks to amend the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007, in the process broadening the definition of terrorism and casting a wider net over what constitutes terrorist activity.
The vagueness of its provisions alone raises concerns. Human rights groups, lawyers, legislators, and individuals alike acknowledge that the “anti-terror bill” leaves a dangerous amount of room for subjective interpretation. In addition, there are several other stipulations that seem to beg the question of whose interest the bill serves. For example, the safeguard that protects a person from human rights violations has been removed. Penalties for law enforcers who infringe the civil and political rights of whoever is accused have also been lowered.
These make the main arguments posed by those who have challenged the bill from the tail end of May well into the Independence Day celebrations-cum-protests last weekend. Today, the show of resistance through the #JUNKTERRORBILLNOW hashtag continues to call attention to the possibility that the bill is weaponized once it is passed.
YOU GOTTA KNOW. Here’s a simple rundown of the Anti-Terror Bill, which can essentially put anyone in jail and brand them terrorists.
Freedom of speech is a right, don’t you ever forget it.
📸 trust_ur_eyes__ pic.twitter.com/IgA5lNMmPZ
— Wonder (@WonderMagPH) May 31, 2020
Since the anti-terror bill has already been transmitted to Malacañang for the signature of President Rodrigo Durterte (if left unsigned after 30 days, it lapses into law), what are the Filipino people left with? For now, another call to heed––this time aimed at the individual: to be informed, to stay vigilant, and to get better acquainted with their rights and the bill that threatens them.
First, What’s at the Heart of the Bill: The Old Versus the New but Broader Definition of Terrorism
There is a clear departure from the HSA definition of terrorism, where two things have to come into play. There must be a “commission of predicate crimes” (meaning murder, kidnapping, arson, the destruction of property, the release of toxic substances, or hijacking). And this must be done with the purpose of “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”
The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 oversimplifies this. In Section 4 of the bill, it enumerates the acts of terrorism and couples them with difficult-to-qualify conditions. “Acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person” at first glance appears self-explanatory. “Engagement in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage or destruction to critical infrastructure” appears to provide some sense of specificity. These along with the three other types of executions of terrorism stand to get further lost in translation when another condition is added: “when the purpose of such act, by its nature and context, is to intimidate the general public or a segment thereof, create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear, to provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any of its international organization, or seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures of the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety.”
But what counts as intimidation? What is meant here by a message of fear? What counts as a provocation of the government? And on that note, where do government officials draw the line between dissent, which they claim is welcome, and provocation that counts as terrorism?
This is just one of the problematic segments of the anti-terror bill: the conditions can be interpreted in a number of potentially dangerous ways. If even airtight laws are bent and corrupted when implemented, what more a law hinged on loose definitions and general descriptors?
Second, Coming to Terms With Walking on Eggshells…
While the Section above does acknowledge that acts of dissent should not be construed as terrorist activities (and “shall not include advocacy, protest … other similar exercises of civil and political rights”), it comes with a caveat: Should said acts be interpreted as “intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety,” all the State needs is to allege that they do so.
A mere allegation over any of the broad conditions tackled thus far can get an ordinary citizen arrested and detained. But what else can be policed under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020?
Everyday Activities Can Come Into Question
There’s the Threat to Commit Terrorism (Section 5) that likewise does not zero in on what counts as a threat in the eyes and mind of the government. Then there’s the Planning, Training, Preparing, and Facilitating the Commission of Terrorism (Section 6) that covers the imparting of knowledge or providing guidance with regard to a new skill. These can be your run-of-the-mill workshops, webinars, talks, and educational sessions on-ground or online. Again, all State agents have to do is allege is that these are related to a future act of terrorism for them to make their case. And for individuals, even the mere possession of documents and/or objects that the State considers connected to acts of terrorism is punishable.
The lack of clarity and preciseness further spills into Section 8 and Section 9 (the Proposal to Commit Terrorism and Inciting to Commit Terrorism, respectively), making them susceptible to abuse, too. Considering the country’s current anti-terrorism measures, the law would have it that only conduct by an individual or group can come into question. However, with the anti-terror bill, all forms of speech and expression such as social media posts, blog entries, pamphlets, posters, drawings and graphics, oral statements, and speeches are made punishable. And this very well infringes the people’s right to free speech.
Privacy, What Privacy?
As is, the State stands to be granted an unprecedented amount of control under the proposed bill. But what’s more, law enforcement gets an expanded scope of power over surveillance. These circle back to the vague definitions tied to terrorism, which again easily lend themselves to abuse in another way.
If under the HSA, people suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism can be put under surveillance, the anti-terror bill includes even people suspected of proposing to commit terrorism. To add, Section 16 states that a “law enforcement agent or military personnel may, upon a written order of the Court of Appeals secretly wiretap, overhear and listen to, intercept, screen, read, surveil, record or collect, with the use of any mode, form, kind or type of electronic, mechanical or other equipment or device or technology.” Any person suspected of merely proposing to commit terrorism can be put under surveillance for up to 60 days.
Should You Be Wrongfully Accused…
You can be arrested without a warrant, and detained without prior investigation or formal charges filed against you. In what human rights groups fear as the avenue for state-sanctioned abuse, here, you can be held in custody for up to 24 days (where the “delivery of detained persons to the proper judicial authorities” must be made in 14 days but can “be extended to a maximum period of 10 calendar days”). Since the anti-terror bill has no provision covering civil liability, a person proven to be prosecuted under false charges does not receive damages.
Conversely, time served by any law enforcer found violating the rights of a detainee is reduced to 10 years (compared to the mandated 10 years and one day up to 12 years in the HSA). Meanwhile, time served by a law enforcer found furnishing false evidence is reduced to an alarming six years (compared to the 12 years and one day to 20 years in the HSA).
Knowing Your Rights Is Power
This includes your right to remain silent and to refuse to answer questions without legal representation. You have a right to an attorney; you have a right to know what charges are being made against you; your Miranda rights have to be read to you at the time of your arrest. While in detention, you have the right to be visited by your family, your attorney, and your doctor.
Know your rights! In light of the threats of raids and arrests, remember: stay calm, be observant, assert your rights, demand access to a phone, and ask the name and rank of your arresting officer.
— Karapatan (@karapatan) November 5, 2019
Something to note: on Twitter, the hashtag #LawyersAllRise serves as a pertinent resource for both Filipino attorneys and the general public. On one hand, members of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties (CLCL) use it to disseminate advice and extend legal aid online. On the other, Twitter users include the hashtag in live tweets reporting human rights violations in light of recent arrests such as protests. Below, mobile numbers of human rights groups to keep on file:
Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties:
+63 965 604 7475
Alliance For The Advancement Of People’s Rights (Karapatan):
+63 999 651 9238 or +93 915 346 3081
Putting the Law Into Context
Even with assurance that in the eyes of those who crafted this bill, anti-terrorism is not anti-activism, on the ground where laws are implemented, lip service granted by officials historically does not hold water. To borrow from Atty. Jazz Tamayo, “bills looking to be passed should be situated in the context of what is going on,” not what is being said by those in office.
With that, some of the questions worth asking that touch on what is going on: Why is the bill seen as urgent in the middle of a pandemic? Has a militaristic approach to a healthcare crisis produced favorable results so far? Has the country successfully curbed human rights violations within its territory in recent years? Does the track record of the Philippine National Police prove they follow and can implement the law objectively and with integrity?
If in a democracy, the deprivation of liberty (through detention or imprisonment) is deemed always the last resort, what does the anti-terror bill tell us?
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver