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Terror law signed: Media keeps up with two opposing sides | CMFR

Terror law signed: Media keeps up with two opposing sides

Screengrab from GMA News’ Youtube video.

DESPITE MUCH opposition and calls for a presidential veto, Rodrigo Duterte signed the anti-terrorism bill into law on July 3. Critics of the bill, particularly those in the law profession, had said that they were ready to challenge the measure’s questionable provisions once signed.

This was one bill that raised an alarm among stakeholder communities who noted the provisions which were open to abuse of government, including those which were promptly described as unconstitutional. Journalists were quick to report these reactions. Among the first to speak out were highly respected government officials, including retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio. Media groups echoed their concerns, especially in the context of the red-tagging of journalists and human rights workers by law enforcement agents. But this background was carried only by a few reports.

In February, a Senate’s majority vote passed SB 1083 without much media attention. In May, after Duterte certified the measure as urgent, the House dropped the different bills being discussed and adopted the Senate version. Media tracked the swift proceedings. Without differences to settle in a bicameral conference, the bill went promptly to the president’s office to be signed into law.

News coverage from July 3 followed the filing of petitions before the Supreme Court, identifying the petitioners, the particular aspects their petitions raised; as well as quoting statements from government officials, police and military who expressed support for the law.

Limiting reports to what either side said, coverage missed the opportunity to discuss the law itself and what the public can expect from its implementation. The news about bill’s progress did not carry the problematic context of recent events. It was as though reporters were not aware of circumstances which have made many Filipinos a reason to be afraid of potential abuse. Already, the handling of suspects of any crime, but especially those expressing dissent on social media.

CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, The Manila Times and Daily Tribune), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night) and selected online news sites from July 3 to 10.

Print and TV news accounts on July 3 and 4 merely quoted or aired reactions of both critics and supporters of the law. Sources opposing the anti-terror law repeated their protest against the dangerous provisions; and those in support thanked Duterte, echoing the claims already made about there being sufficient safeguards against abuse. Newscasts covered the protests actions and statements against the newly signed law.

Media tracked the string of appeals from the first filed on July 4. As of this writing, eight petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court.

Reports by 24 Oras and TV Patrol enumerated provisions which drew objections from petitioners.  These included the provision for warrantless arrest as unconstitutional and the definition of terrorism as vague. The Bulletin did the same.

OneNews.ph did more by discussing the key arguments in the documents, as well as the similarities and differences among the first four petitions.

Media have been recording statements of the military and police officials who said the old anti-terrorism law, the Human Security Act, lacked teeth. Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief, repeatedly said that this was the reason he had authored the bill. Unfortunately, media failed to discuss the lapses in the conduct of law enforcement in implementing the old law.

While media recorded opposing points, reports did not provide the context for the positions taken. No one asked the law’s supporters how serious the terrorism problem is that it takes precedence above other concerns during the pandemic. Reports also failed to refer to the recent crackdown on dissenters, who under the new law may be branded as terrorists and be arrested without due process.    

Reporting the concerns of lawyers, coverage failed to call attention to recent developments that have led to mistrust of law enforcement, such as the treatment of those who could not comply with quarantine restrictions, with little regard for their human rights.

Reports carried the statement of Hermogenes Esperon, National Security Adviser, that social media may be used by the Anti-Terrorism Council as basis to determine whether a person could be considered a terrorist. But journalists did not ask Esperon if this did not endanger the free speech rights of citizens, especially those who were critical of the failure of government to do a better job in addressing the spread of the disease, reflecting their own lack of concern over arrests of ordinary citizens who were candid about what they thought of government’s performance during the crisis.

At the same time, the need for more teeth against terror did not provoke questions about the serious failure of intelligence on the part of military or police. 

In 2017, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had admitted to a failure “to appreciate intelligence” in preventing the terrorist attack that resulted in a prolonged siege in Marawi City. News accounts did not recall this statement in reporting the necessity of a stronger anti-terrorism measure.

Reports did not check whether the new law would address the need to build up the capacity for better intelligence on the part of law enforcement agencies. News accounts merely repeated Lorenzana’s statement that the Anti-Terrorism Act “should be given a chance,” without asking him whether the new law remedies weaknesses in intelligence systems.

CMFR has pointed out that the truth about the newly-signed anti-terrorism law is not a matter of opinion for those for or against it. Analysis of the questionable provisions are based on fact and the requirements of due process and the Constitution. These should have been given more space by journalists.

As more petitions are expected to be filed, the media should engage the public and help citizens understand what is at stake. Given this case, journalists will have to pore over legal documents. This challenge compels journalists to explore the ways they can help ordinary people understand the terms of the debate.  This should not be left to lawyers, to military or police. The legal discussion should be made more relevant to ordinary people, and the coverage of which should raise people’s awareness of their rights. Only with such knowledge can Filipinos protect their rights and prevent the terror of law from trampling on their freedoms.