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More terror from anti-terrorism law's IRR | CMFR

More terror from anti-terrorism law’s IRR

Screengrab from News5Everywhere’s Youtube account.

WITH 37 PETITIONS filed before the Supreme Court questioning its constitutionality, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA)has become one of the most contested laws in recent history. After it was signed into law last July 3, lawyers led the complaints, joined by academics, religious leaders, journalists and other members of civil society. All questioned its vague and unconstitutional provisions, and most asked the High Court to suspend its implementation.

Supporters of this law, including author and former police chief Senator Panfilo Lacson, had insisted that it had enough safeguards against abuse. The Department of Justice (DOJ) promised that provisions under question would be clarified by the ATA’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR), which should be issued within 90 days after the law’s effectivity.

On schedule, the DOJ published the IRR on October 16. As the High Court has not yet even begun oral arguments on the petitions, the law can thus be enforced.  

Broadsheets and primetime newscasts published at least one report each on the IRR. But most accounts simply carried the statements of dissatisfaction from petitioners and the responses of DOJ to their complaints.

Online news sites cited the same sources but took more effort to discuss the rules, with some headlines calling attention to the IRR’s problematic features.

The relatively restrained accounts seem symptomatic of the failure of media to objectively challenge a controversial law that has the clear imprimatur of both Malacanang and the military.

CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas, ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the counterpart news sites of these broadsheets and channels, and independent news sites from October 17 to 27.

After October 16, accounts presented texts of the IRR, touching on sections defining terrorism and the implementation of warrantless arrests. On the whole, reports captured the sharp reaction to the failure of the IRR to cure the law’s excesses and its fundamental flaws. For example, the IRR still allows law enforcement agencies to determine with “reasonable probability” whether criticism and dissent can be subject to legal action.

Coverage noted that the Anti-Terrorism Council is empowered by the law to designate individuals or groups as terrorists based on probable cause, a process that is distinct from the judicial process of proscription. Reports said that the IRR added a new feature not provided for in the law: upon the ATC’s designation, the names of suspected terrorists would be published in newspapers and on the websites of the Official Gazette and the ATC, legitimizing the already odious practice of red-tagging. These persons need not be informed about such publication. They can apply for delisting by arguing on certain grounds, such as mistaken identity and insufficient evidence. Their assets would also be frozen by the AMLC.

Rappler, OneNews.ph, Philstar.com and CNNPhilippines.com used headlines to flag with correct and necessary emphasis this new feature which was not even in the law. TV Patrol led its report quoting Bayan Muna Party-list’s comment that this process was the “mother of red-tagging.” Interviewed by the media, petitioners including IBP president Domingo Cayosa, former SC Spokesperson Theodore Te and Atty. Howard Calleja, all contested the violation of due process and serious consequences of the designation.

Most of the reports packaged the discussion as an exchange of legal viewpoints, not as legitimate concerns of citizens who have a right to speak out and criticize government. CMFR had previously observed the same care taken by media not to be seen as siding with the complainants, presenting their reactions as though they were merely a matter of opinion and not based on the actual harm that the ATA could wreak on the lives of those wrongly accused as terrorists.  

Most reports failed to cite recent cases which validate arguments against the dangers of the ATA. Furthermore, reports did not point out the reality that the IRR has not provided the necessary safeguards against the demonstrated capacity of the police and military to abuse their authority.

There were only a few accounts which recalled problematic policies to address the threat of terrorism in the past.

Rappler and Philstar.com included the important context that President Duterte’s war on drugs operated on the same principle of publicly accusing people of crimes, without giving them the opportunity to refute the accusation. Philstar.com recalled how individuals in the “narco-list” and human rights defenders who were accused by the police and military as terrorists ended up killed, without any chance to clear their names.

TV5’s explainer gave background on the membership of the ATC, saying all except one of the nine Duterte-appointed Cabinet members were retired from the military, with some known for red-tagging progressive groups and activists.

Soon enough, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade of the NTF-ELCAC accused three women celebrities of being communist sympathizers on his Facebook page. The media followed this development, highlighting the celebrity status of those accused, without criticizing the practice of red-tagging on any platform, including social media.

As the public awaits the oral arguments at the SC on the ATA petitions, the media should reframe the coverage to underscore the significance of the government’s actions. While the petitioners offer valuable insight, limiting the coverage to their views puts the focus solely on the legal aspect of this policy and tends to sideline facts and evidence establishing the widespread danger of this draconian law, given its attack on free speech. Another frame to apply in the coverage of the ATA is the militarization of the Duterte administration. Any law that allows this kind of treatment of its citizens is open to abuse, against which no legal recourse could restore the harm it would have caused the victims. Journalists who are among the most threatened should report this because it is simply the truth.