The Palace and the Justice department on Wednesday shot down a proposal from the National Youth Commission to strip students who are members of leftist organizations of their government-backed scholarships.
In a statement on Wednesday, the commission’s chairman, Ronald Cardema, called on President Rodrigo Duterte to issue an executive order to withdraw the state scholarships granted to “anti-government scholars.”
Cardema said these scholars were “fighting the majority of the Filipino people” by going against the government.
“[They are] also not fulfilling their roles as the expected breadwinners who will uplift their families and as our hope in strengthening our country,” he added.
Cardema, who also chairs the so-called Duterte Youth Movement, said several scholars were recently caught as members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
He also asked officials of the Sangguniang Kabataan, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Citizen Army Training, and other youth leaders to “report to the National Youth Commission all government scholars who are known in your area as anti-government youth leaders allied with the leftist CPP-NPA-NDF.”
At a press briefing at the Palace, however, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo described as reckless the proposal to withdraw scholarships based only on suspicion.
“We are a government of laws, not of speculations. If we are just speculating, that will not be possible. We need evidence [to support the claim] that they are really part of the groups that oppose the government,” Panelo said.
Under the law, he added, students have the right to join protest rallies.
“If they are participating in rallies, that’s their right. That’s their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly... If you have grievances to the government, that’s a constitutional right,” he said.
“But if you use rallies to foment violence, to incite sedition, that’s a different story,” he added.
“Under the Revised Penal Code, we have sedition, rebellion, and conspiracies to commit sedition and rebellion. If you fit in those, the government cannot support you. Otherwise, the government will be killing itself,” Panelo said.
He said he doubted if Duterte would heed Cardema’s call.
“If you would only remove [the scholarships] on the basis of suspicion, I don’t think the President will sign that,” he said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday also rejected Cardema’s proposal, saying this would be a violation of the students’ constitutional rights.
“With all due respect, such a proposal, if adopted would effectively restrain the youth’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression,” the Justice secretary said.
Guevarra said state universities and colleges should be proud of their students who speak out on national issues.
“Our state universities and colleges, instead of taking it against the militant students by dropping them from the roll, should be proud that they are producing young people who are socially aware and concerned not only about themselves but also about the nation,” Guevarra said.
Senator Francis Escudero said if anyone was to lose a position, it should be Cardema, not the students.
Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on education, arts and culture, said Cardema was bringing shame to the administration for his “ignorance” and doing a disservice to the President and the government.
“That is clearly not part of their [NYC] mandate and in violation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rghts that guarantees freedom of speech, of expression and of the press, the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances, and due process and equal protection of the laws.”
“The government is the government of those who agree with it and disagree with it... and the President is the President of those who voted for him and did not vote for him,” Escudero added.
“Both the President and the government should serve every Filipino without distinction and regardless of political beliefs. Dissent, in a democracy should never be frowned upon, much less penalized in any way,” said Escudero, who was a former student leader at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, another former student leader at UP Diliman, said it is not illegal to join leftist organizations nor it is illegal to protest or join rallies.
Senator Panfilo Lacson added that showing dissent and joining anti-government rallies was an exercise of a basic right available to any citizen of the country.
Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay argued that Cardema’s proposal was contrary to the mandate of the youth commission. He said scholarships should be based on merit, not politics.