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State of Lawless Violence: Media's Watchdog Role Crucial | CMFR

State of Lawless Violence: Media’s Watchdog Role Crucial


President Rodrigo Duterte. CMFR file photo


MEDIA’S RESPONSIBILITY to provide information and to explain what’s going on has become even more crucial in the context of the recent actions of the Duterte administration that may have an impact on civil liberties.

Shortly before 5 a.m. of Sept. 3, President Rodrigo Duterte told a group of reporters at the site of the Davao bombing, which claimed 14 lives and wounded more than 60 people, that he was declaring a state of lawless violence. During the interview aired lived by some news organizations, he said the government had received information warning against an attack by the Abu Sayyaf but that the authorities could not just frisk citizens because it would be “fascistic”.

The president said the declaration was “not martial law” but his invitation to “the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the military and the police to run the country in accordance with my specifications” understandably puzzled and alarmed many Filipinos. The announcement, which many Filipinos may not have heard or understood, had both media and public asking what exactly it meant. Duterte even told journalists to “discover” for themselves what a state of lawless violence is. It didn’t help that the announcement of this declaration was relayed to the press by several people supposedly speaking for the administration.

No Coordination?

While legal experts and members of the president’s office clarified that the declaration simply meant that the chief executive can now call on the military to help the police control the situation as mandated by Article 7, Section 18 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, there was also initial confusion in, among others, informing the public whether the declaration covered only certain areas or the entire country.

Rappler and The Philippine Star pointed out the conflicting statements of several officials. Aside from secretaries Martin Andanar and Ernesto Abella, the two designated spokespersons of the president, other officials spoke to the media about the scope of the declaration, among them Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go, Communications Assistant Secretary Queenie Rodulfo and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. The conflicting statements they issued on whether the declaration covered only Mindanao or the whole country were consequently reflected in print and broadcast reports and in social media posts.

The Presidential Communications Office (PCO) announced before noon of Sept. 3 that the declaration of a state of lawless violence covers the whole country. Prior to this, netizens had already criticized Duterte’s officials for their seeming lack of coordination.

Written declaration

President Duterte signed on Sept. 4 Proclamation 55 “declaring a state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao.” The proclamation said that violent and lawless acts such as “abductions, hostage-takings and murder of innocent civilians, bombing of power transmission facilities, highway robberies and extortions, attacks on military outposts, assassinations of media people and mass jailbreaks” have been rampant in Mindanao in recent months. The proclamation also specifically identified the Davao blast as an act of lawless violence.

As pointed out by a report in Interaksyon, nowhere in the proclamation was it explicitly said that the reason for the declaration was the government’s war on drugs.  Panelo had said in a radio interview by GMA Network’s Super Radyo DZBB on Sept. 4 that even before the Davao explosion, a declaration on the state of lawless violence was already being drafted because of the anti-drug campaign. A GMA News Online report quoted Panelo to have said, “Hindi ‘yan (Davao bombing) nag-trigger. Actually, nasa planning stage na ‘yan (declaration). In fact, nagda-draft na nga kami ng proclamation eh.”

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on Tuesday, Sept. 6, contradicted Panelo’s claim that the government had already planned to declare a state of lawless violence prior to the Davao bombing. In an interview with GMA News TV’s News to Go, Medialdea said the declaration only came after the bombing took place.

Proclamation 55 also said that “based on government intelligence reports, there exist credible threats of further terror attacks and other similar acts of violence by lawless elements in other parts of the country, including the metropolitan areas.” It will remain in force and effect until lifted by the president.

Prelude to Martial Law?

Duterte’s declaration raised the question of whether it was a prelude to martial law.  It is a valid concern about which the media can play an important role in explaining both the implications of the declaration of a state of national emergency as well as a declaration of martial law.

Reports on TV, print and online media sought interpretations from several legal experts and law practitioners. The consensus was that the declaration is not alarming and that the military is only being called out by the president to assist in restoring order. The civil and political rights of the public as stated in the Constitution will not be violated, these legal experts said.

The “calling-out” power of the president to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion is legal, even without an official declaration. But it is important to note that only invasion and rebellion are the conditions for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus or a proclamation of martial law.

Article 7, Section 18 of the Constitution also explicitly states that Congress has the power to revoke the suspension as well as the proclamation. The Supreme Court is also mandated to review the sufficiency of the factual bases of the suspension of the writ or the proclamation of the martial law.

Memorandum Order No. 3 released on Sept. 7 provided guidelines for the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police in implementing measures against lawless violence. According to Medialdea, this ensures that the fundamental rights of citizens will be respected at all times.

The “plain view” doctrine–only when weapons or anything illegal is in plain sight of the authorities manning checkpoints– will also be enforced, and no further intrusive actions shall be taken without the subject’s agreement.

The memorandum also said that “Any AFP and PNP personnel found violating any of the foregoing constitutional rights shall be held administratively and civilly, or criminally liable therefore.”

With the increased visibility of police and military personnel, citizen vigilance is called for in these times. The declaration of a state of national emergency presumes that government will eradicate threats to citizen safety in the soonest possible time. Media’s function as a watchdog in behalf of citizen rights becomes even more crucial in such a state.