Tags them as communist network amid howls of media crackdown
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has ordered internet service providers (ISP) to block 26 websites that it said had ties to communist terrorist groups, a move that human rights groups and leftist lawmakers immediately condemned as a prelude to a media crackdown.
In a memorandum dated June 8 and released to the media on Wednesday, NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba required all local ISPs to submit an action report within five days of their receipt of the order.
“You are hereby directed to effect the immediate blocking of the reported websites found to be affiliated to and are supporting terrorist and terrorist organizations,” the memorandum read.
The memorandum came after National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. requested the NTC to block 26 websites, several of which are related to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its leader, Jose Maria Sison.
In a letter sent addressed to Cordoba on June 6, Esperon said the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) has designated the CPP, New People’s Army (NPA), and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) as terrorist organizations—and Central Committee members of the CPP-NPA as terrorists.
“The activities, in terms of recruitment, funding, and propaganda, of these communist terrorist organizations, should be stopped,” he said.
Esperon noted that both Facebook and Twitter have started a crackdown against accounts and pages belonging to communist terror groups.
However, he said these groups have established a “pervasive online presence,” with their websites containing “propaganda and misinformation campaigns in order to malign the Philippine government, recruit new members, and solicit funds from local and international sources.”
“In this regard, may we request the NTC to issue legal instruments to order Philippine ISPs to block access to the following websites affiliated to and are supporting these terrorist and terrorist organizations,” he said.
The list includes the websites of the NDFP, CPP, Hiyaw, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, and Save Our Schools Network.
It also included independent news organizations Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly.
But the CCP said only seven of the more than 20 websites were affiliated with it and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
In a statement, CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena condemned the NTC order, saying it was a form of censorship and suppression of people’s right to free speech.
“CPP denounces the National Security Council and various agencies of the reactionary government for the push to erect a Marcos Anti-Democracy (MAD) Internet Firewall in a desperate bid to censor online criticism and dissent against the incoming illegitimate Marcos II regime, as well as suppress progressive, patriotic and revolutionary journalism and literature that exposes the ills of the ruling system,” he said.
Valbuena said the ban was “just the opening scene for a general crackdown against Philippine media” by the government led by President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Malacañang said that groups affected by the NTC order have legal remedies available to them.
“Groups and independent media organizations who are affiliated to and are supporting terrorist and terrorist organizations have legal remedies available to them,” acting presidential spokesman Martin Andanar said in a statement.
He said the NTC’s order was based on a request from the National Security Council, which is only performing its mandate.
Several groups and alternative media organizations have condemned the order, saying the move “sets a dangerous precedent for independent journalism in the Philippines.”
“Bulatlat, the longest-running and award-winning online media outfit and the authority in human rights reporting in the Philippines, condemns this brazen violation of our right to publish, and of the public’s right to free press and free expression,” it said.
Bulatlat said it already asked NTC and the Department of Information and Communications Technology to investigate the matter on June 20 but it has yet to receive a response.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the blocking of media and civil society websites was yet “another dimension to the government’s outrageous, rights abusing efforts to red-tag and harass civil society actors, including journalists and activists.”
“This is nothing less than a brazen attempt to undermine them and censor these media outlets and groups. What’s astonishing is how easily the government escalates its defamatory rhetoric, moving from red-tagging them to classifying them as terrorists, in effect terrorist-tagging them,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
“But the bottom line is the government has offered no solid evidence whatsoever to back up its claims that these groups work with the communists, let alone are preparing to bear arms against the government. The NSC instead falls back on vague, catch-all weasel words, using descriptions like affiliates of the insurgents, to throw a blanket over these civil society groups,” Robertson added.
“The National Telecommunications Commission should refuse this attempt by the NSC to use it for political ends. The NTC should make sure that press freedom and freedom of expression online is upheld and respected,” he said.
“The oversight committees of both houses of the Philippine Congress should take another look at the Anti-Terrorism Law, which allows the NSC to do this, is being misused. Civil society and the international community, including UN agencies and donor governments like the EU and others, should publicly condemn this latest attempt to suppress freedom of expression in the Philippines,” he added.
PinoyMedia Center, Inc. (PMC), publisher of alternative newsmagazine Pinoy Weekly, said it was outraged by the NTC memorandum.
“We demand the NTC to retract the memorandum and allow the alternative media to fulfill its duty to the public,” the publisher said in a statement. “NTC and NSC’s action is an outright violation of our freedom of the press and of expression and an affront to the people’s right to information, especially with the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation on social media.”
The Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives on Wednesday condemned the NTC memo.
“The order of the NTC from the request of the National Security Council to internet service providers to block websites of progressive organizations and independent media is red-tagging in the context of the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act,” Assistant Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said.
Castro labelled the NTC order as “red-tagging at the cost of stifling free speech and free press.”
“We vehemently condemn this order to censor progressive organizations and independent media. This is another attack against press freedom and the right of the people to free speech,” Castro said.
She added: “Even the website of Save Our Schools Network, a network of organizations that support Lumad schools and advocates access to quality education for all is not spared from the brazen red-tagging attacks of the NSC and its censorship attempts.”
Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate denounced the NTC order as baseless, calling it “a blatant violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and of the press.”
“We have been warning this all along that this administration will arbitrarily and despotically weaponize the Anti-Terror law against its critics,” said Zarate.
“This heavy-handed move will hopefully give the Court another look at the broad anti-democratic provisions of the terror law and eventually strike them down,” he added, referring to the Supreme Court, which had ruled the law to be constitutional.