A man wears a protective face mask in a slum area in Tondo, Manila, on April 18, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philippine government has focused more attention on the suppression of freedom of expression in the guise of protecting the nation from “anarchy, chaos, fear and confusion.” However, it is unclear where the line between a legitimate call of the people for improved health and medical services and “sedition” is drawn.

President Rodrigo Duterte has already sent his clear message: Silence all his critics. And what better time to do that?

On March 23, Duterte was given an “emergency power” to deliver social services effectively to the millions of Filipinos affected by the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). Known as the Bayanihan Heal as One Act or Republic Act 11469, it is valid only for three months. Gradually, the ECQ in some areas with no infection or low infection is lifted.

Rule of law except for the few

On May 5, a social-studies teacher, Ronnel Mas of Zambales tweeted, “I will give P50 million reward kung sino makakapatay [who can kill] kay Duterte.” He was arrested by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

NBI Director Eric Distor said his agency was “serious in carrying out its mandate to pursue cases involving threats to security or assaults against the person of the president as well as of the vice-president, Senate president, Speaker of the House of Representatives and chief justice of the Supreme Court,” under the NBI Reorganization and Modernization Act.

On the same day, ABS-CBN, the Philippines ’ largest TV network, threatened by Duterte since 2019, was shut down, with the government saying that its franchise had expired.

On March 27, a 55-year-old public-school teacher in General Santos City, Mindanao, Juliet Espinosa, was charged with sedition after posting her criticism on Facebook for the alleged lack of relief goods distributed to the people.

On April 19, Cebu-based artist Maria Victoria “Bambi” Beltran was arrested for allegedly violating the cybercrime law and the “fake news” provision of the Bayanihan Heal as One Law after posting on Facebook that “9,000+ cases of Covid-19 in Zapatera, Cebu, makes the city the epicenter in the whole solar system.”

Elanel Ordidor, a Filipino working in Taiwan, posted live videos on her Facebook page criticizing Duterte for the use of force to impose quarantine measures. On April 25, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) posted a statement from Labor Attaché Fidel V Macauyag seeking a request to deport Ordidor for violating the cybercrime law by posting “nasty and malevolent materials against President Duterte on Facebook intended to cause hatred amidst the global health crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

While the NBI is going after critics of the Duterte regime, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), an agency attached to the government-run Philippine News Agency (PNA), remains unscathed.

Recently, the PCOO headed by Martin Andanar shared a series of infographics from the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) accusing ABS-CBN of franchise violations and other propaganda red-baiting members of the media and legal organizations. (The author is one of the signatories.)

Unlike ordinary Filipinos who suffered humiliation and arrest for violating the cybercrime law, Margaux Mocha Uson, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) deputy administrator, was given due process for allegedly posting fake news. Uson posted pictures on social media claiming that personal protective equipment (PPE) was bought by the Department of Health (DOH), when it was actually bought by the SM Foundation.

Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Harry Roque assures the international community that the Philippines has a “free and robust press where the critics and the political opposition remain vocal in their aversion to the current government.”

Cybercrime law in the Philippines

On July 11, 2011, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act 10175) was signed into law by then-president Benigno Aquino III. The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) were signed on August 12, 2015.

The law recognizes the use of the Internet to commit cybercrimes such as pornography, trafficking, and fraud, among others. However, the law also includes libel among the acts punishable by law. Libel is a criminal case under the Revised Penal Code Article 358. Under the cybercrime law, libel can be either oral or written.

Freedom of expression, a farce

How does this affect media practitioners? In a libel case, the Revised Penal Code under Article 360 includes not only the author but the editors as well.

Since 2012, the law has been opposed by journalists, media workers, and academics.

In a statement released by the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) in October 2012, it criticized the Aquino administration for the law’s chilling effect not only on communication and journalism students and media practitioners but also on everyone else, since it subjects practically all interpersonal communication processed through new media and “other devices” to possible punishment including imprisonment.

While the law is commendable for strengthening the fight against cybercrimes including pornography, cybersex, cyberbullying and trafficking, it can lead to abuses.

“While the law has inclusions that protect and help international crimes, it was an unnecessary curtailment of civil liberties and draconian legislation,” Marcel Milliam, a law scholar, said in an interview.

Eight years after RA 10175 was enacted, it has finally focused on critics of the government. Online media outlet Rappler’s CEO, Maria Ressa, and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr have been charged with cyber libel in connection with a story written in 2012 about businessman Wilfredo Keng and his connection to a judge. 

“This makes press freedom a farce as early as that time. With the weaponization of laws to suppress our basic freedoms, press freedom gets killed with the rise of a tyrant into power in 2016,” said Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at UP CMC and a media practitioner.

Arao also claimed that RA 10175, as well as related laws on inciting sedition, is being used against the Filipino people. In the Revised Penal Code, sedition is a crime that constitutes “speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, cartoons, banners, or other representations tending to the same end, or upon any person or persons who shall utter seditious words or speeches, write, publish, or circulate scurrilous libels against the Republic of the Philippines or any of the duly constituted authorities.”

If the Philippines has an extradition treaty with another country where the offense was committed, the offender can be extradited. This is commonly done to cybercriminals, but the law is not specific on which criminal acts qualify. Hence requesting the deportation of Ordidor from Taiwan is testing the waters. Fortunately, the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the request, emphasizing freedom of expression even among migrant workers.

Applying the territorial principle of Philippine criminal law, the libel must be committed in the Philippines before it becomes punishable. Because of the Internet, cyber libel now has a different scope.

“Libel is easy to allege but hard to prove, especially if the complainant is a public official or a public figure. But definitely, libel laws have always been used to silence critics and suppress dissenters,” said Joel Jabal, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines- Oriental Mindoro Chapter.

Speak truth to power

The Internet, particularly social media, has been instrumental in conveying people’s messages across the world. It has bound us together as a community, as we are particularly seeing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although it cannot be ignored that social media are also used adversely, they have been effective tools for expressing our disappointments and asking for accountability from our government officials. But the authoritarian regime of President Duterte now uses social media against us. 

The Bill of Rights in the Philippine constitution says: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The Duterte regime is instilling fear to discourage Filipinos from making legitimate demands. Posting or airing our discontentment in any form may result in charges of violating cybercrime law or, worse, sedition. 

As the pandemic ravages the Philippines, the administration has been focusing more on the perceived enemies and arresting critics of the government instead of the shortage of PPE, lack of health and medical assistance to the poor, lack of testing kits, increasing poverty and the plummeting economy.

Despite the threat and exposing us to red-baiting, journalists, academics, other people refused to be cowered. It is only through our collective efforts that we can end the tyranny.

“The people should not allow this to happen. The silver lining is that there is a critical mass of people who are brave enough to speak truth to power,” Professor Arao said.

Eunice Barbara C Novio

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. She is also a lecturer at Vongchavalitkul University in Nakhon Ratchasima. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to Inquirer.net's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.