Dear Asian Youth,
1984 by George Orwell. While this novel may give you flashbacks to late-night study sessions for your sophomore year English class, it is becoming a harsh reality for many. In the novel, Winston Smith lives in a world where citizens have no right to speak, or even think thoughts that do not directly align with the government’s ideals. Every aspect of people’s lives is brutally controlled. The modern-day Big Brother, you ask? President Rodrigo Duterte (talk about foreshadowing!) While the Philippines is suffering as a result of Duterte’s response (or rather lack of response, as seen by the 24,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines), Duterte attempts to control the narrative again in the face of growing criticism. This time, he fast-tracked the Anti-Terrorism bill through the Philippine House of Representatives—but don’t let the name deceive you, as the bill can and will sign the death certificate of Philippine democracy. The bill, received on June 9th, now sits on Duterte’s desk, waiting to be signed as thousands continue to march the streets to protect the remains of freedom in the Philippines.
Fittingly nicknamed the “Terror Bill”, this law would grant the government the right to label anyone as a terrorist, subjecting citizens to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences if they belong to organizations that have displeased the president. The definition of terrorism would include actions that merely intend to result in “death or serious bodily injury”, "extensive damage and destruction" of infrastructure, or "intimidation of [the] general public”. It would also become a criminal offense to provoke others to engage in acts of terrorism, including protests and social media activism. Under this extremely broad and vague definition, any act of expression including speech, proclamation, and writing can be deemed “terrorism.”
In addition, anyone who criticizes the government can be arrested without a warrant. If the Anti-Terror Council finds you “suspicious”, they have the right to take you into custody immediately. To be charged without a warrant is a clear violation of constitutional rights: the Philippine Bill of Rights states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved”. Furthermore, if someone is found guilty of supposed “terrorist activity”, they could be looking at a life sentence without the chance of parole. To make matters worse, this “Anti-Terror council” does not even constitute a court; instead, it is made up of government-appointed officials, of which most (if not all) are supporters of President Duterte and his policies.
However, as disappointing and unjust the bill is, I can’t say I’m surprised. Duterte has a history of resorting to militarized means to respond to national crises. Last year, the Philippines' Congress, filled with Duterte’s allies, cut 4 billion pesos ($80 million USD) from the nation’s disaster funds. And in January, after the carelessness in his administration's response to the Taal volcano eruption, Duterte simply cursed the volcano and threatened to “pee on Taal”. How classy of him! A few weeks later, when the nation struggled to defend itself against COVID-19, Duterte provided no resources for support and instead announced that he was looking for the “idiot” coronavirus because he wanted to “slap it.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. ABS-CBN, a popular Philippine media network, was taken off the air in May — another one of Duterte’s many attempts to promote censorship. In another instance, a teacher uploaded a sarcastic social media post that offered 1 million dollars to assassinate Duterte, and a driver followed up saying that he was willing to double that amount. It was a joke in their eyes, but a malicious terrorist assassination attempt in the eyes of law enforcement. The teacher and driver have since been arrested, most likely charged with inciting sedition. Clearly, Duterte has a longstanding habit of silencing any critics — and now he’s signing it into law.
According to Section 4 of the Philippine Bill of Rights, “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.” As a first-generation Filipino-American, I find it incredibly terrifying that my country is being destroyed by those who are supposed to maintain it. I have many close relatives in the Philippines, some significantly younger than me. The fact that they may never be able to voice their opinions without being labeled as a terrorist is heartbreaking. Having experienced the hardships of Filipino life firsthand, I can say with confidence that Filipino people have fought and are still fighting hard, but robbing this right from them completely discredits their efforts.
Rather than protecting Filipino citizens from potential terrorists, the government is becoming a terrorist organization itself, continuing to attack Philippine democracy. The entire foundation of democracy is built off of checks and balances alongside the people’s voices, but when the government criminalizes free speech and refuses to listen, what is the purpose of this supposed “democracy”? As summarized by human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, "It's not about going after terrorists, but critics of this administration." During a time when it is so crucial for a nation’s people to come together as one, such a bill not only violates human rights but divides its people. While the Philippines lacks the resources needed to soothe the coronavirus pandemic, Duterte is completely exploiting his nation’s vulnerable situation as a distraction from his failing administration.
The bill is now sitting on Duterte's desk and only he can sign or veto it. If he chooses to do neither, the bill will inevitably become law in 30 days. That’s 30 days before Filipinos are robbed of their freedom of speech. That’s 30 days before the remains of Philippine democracy crumble. But that’s also 30 days for the Department of Justice to repeal the bill for violations of constitutional rights. That’s 30 days to make noise and speak up and prevent this bill from being implemented. We have time, and we must use this time wisely to stop the Philippines from collapsing into chaos.
- Julianne and Stephanie