Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

MANILA – While China’s passage of a controversial new national security law for Hong Kong made global headlines, the Philippines’ tabling of an even more draconian anti-terrorism bill failed to garner the same degree of media attention.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his political allies, now armed with unprecedented emergency powers to combat Covid-19, are quickly intensifying their authoritarian grip through increasingly draconian measures.

Many fear the tough-talking leader is now leveraging the health crisis as a pretense to legally and permanently roll back rights and liberties, significantly at a time when protests and large-scale social gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus crisis.

The new anti-terror bill nominally aims to empower law enforcement and security agencies to more effectively pre-empt and punish acts of terror, a persistent risk in the nation’s restive southern and other regions, but less so in the capital Manila and major northern and central island cities.

Duterte has warned rebel groups against taking advantage of the soldier-enforced lockdown, which through the redeployment of troops has created a security vacuum in violence-prone peripheries, to stir trouble or consolidate their positions.

Critics of the legislation say the existing Human Security Act (2007), which provides a delicate balance between civil liberties and national security, is sufficient for addressing terrorism-related offenses.

They argue that the government’s counterterrorism failures, including the months-long siege of Marawi by ragtag Islamic State affiliates in 2017, are instead a reflection of intelligence failures and institutional incompetence among security agencies.

A Filipino soldier uses binoculars during the siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-aligned militants, July 1, 2017. Photo: Twitter

Human rights groups and othes fear the new law adopts an overly broad definition of terrorism, providing ample room for abuse by security forces, including to suppress voices of dissent.

Last week, a House of Representatives committee dominated by Duterte’s political allies swiftly adopted draft legislation to amend existing anti-terror laws approved by the Senate in February.

“The urgency of this bill requires us to really fast- track the approval of this bill,” said Narciso Bravo Jr, who chairs the House Committee on Public Order and Safety.

Bravo suggested the bill’s final version would be approved without a joint sitting of the lower and upper houses, meaning Duterte’s House allies can push the law through without the more independent Senate’s final vetting.

Reports suggest Bravo is under growing pressure from his congressional bosses, including Duterte’s former running mate, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, as well as his son, Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte, to push the bill through.

The Human Security Act of 2007 sought to prevent abuses by security agencies by imposing strict restrictions on arrests, detention and surveillance of suspected terrorists, including through heavy financial penalties for wayward law enforcers.

The proposed legislation adopts a much narrower definition of terrorism, which previously focused on deliberate attacks against civilians by politically-motivated elements. Duterte has said the bill is “priority” legislation, nudging his legislative allies to fast-track its passage.

Philippine security forces prepare to display an ISIS flag recovered from an Islamist militants’ position prior to a press conference at the provincial capitol in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The proposed law will, if passed, dramatically expand the definition of terrorism, with new greater emphasis on attacks on government offices and critical infrastructure.

It also controversially allows for warrantless arrests of up to 24 days and provides for the police or military to conduct a 60-day surveillance on suspected terrorists, which may be extended to another 30 days with judicial authorization.

Some Regional Trial Courts will also be reconfigured into Anti-Terror Courts to “ensure the speedy disposition of cases,” according to the draft law.  

The Philippine defense establishment, which has criticized existing counterterrorism laws as too restrictive, has welcomed the controversial move. In a statement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana lauded the bill’s swift adoption as necessary for more effective counterterrorism.

“The Human Security Act of 2007 is no longer responsive to the evolving nature of the threats we face, hence the need for a new law,” Lorenzana said, reiterating longstanding complaints by security officials amid a spike in terror attacks.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (C) tries a CQ-A5b (M4) rifle donated by the Chinese government at military headquarters in Manila, October 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Liberal-leaning Representative Ruffy Biazon, a top defense expert, sought to assuage concerns of congressional railroading of the bill, stating that he expects “intense” democratic debate during the plenary and final approval of the bill in coming weeks.

Left-leaning opposition members, however, are less sanguine, especially given the escalating crackdown and state-backed violence against progressive groups and personalities in recent years. Those have included countless extrajudicial killings of leftist and left-leaning activists, human rights advocates and journalists.

Many have been wrongly “red-tagged”, a practice whereby Filipinos are accused of communist sympathies on social media or in anonymously circulated fliers, a designation that often presages deadly attacks.  

In late April, Duterte lashed out at the New People’s Army (NPA) communist rebels in a national address, accusing the decades-old rebel outfit of exploiting the Covid-19 crisis and warning he “might declare martial law” if the threat continues.

New People’s Army (NPA) fighters in formation in the Sierra Madre mountain range, located east of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Cialis

“That’s why now, if you continue with your lawlessness, killing here and there – and it’s happening all over the Philippines – maybe I will declare martial law because you [NPA] rebels are the number one [instigators],” he said.

Since the coronavirus-combating Bayanihan to Heal as One Act’s emergency declaration in March, Duterte’s government has stepped up suppression of dissent, including those who have criticized his soldier-enforced lockdown policies.

The emergency law allows authorities to impose heavy penalties on individuals or groups who create or disseminate vaguely defined “false information” about the Covid-19 crisis.

The broad and vague measures have facilitated dozens of warrantless arrests and subpoenas filed against critical netizens, opposition politicians and others across the country.

In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the new emergency measures could “easily be misused by Philippine authorities to crack down on online criticism of government efforts.”

Security personnel hold up placards reminding people to stay at home amid a Covid-19 lockdown in Manila, March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

“Given the Duterte administration’s well-documented hostility towards freedom of the press and online critics, this law could be used to criminalize any online information the government dislikes,” said, Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.

That prediction was on the repressive mark. Now, there are rising fears that the proposed anti-terror bill will also be weaponized against critics and opposition members, with even greater punishments due the vague and broad definition of terrorism.

Carlos Zarate, who represents the left-leaning Bayan Muna party, voted against the anti-terror bill, which he described as a “draconian measure” which “would effectively make the country a police state, where protests and dissent are now equated with terrorism.”