A human rights watchdog has downgraded the Philippines’ "civic space" rating from “obstructed” to “repressed” this year, citing the passage of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, attacks against the media, and the alleged killings and vilification of activists in the past year.
South Africa-based Civicus Monitor said in its People Power Under Attack report 2020 that it is “extremely concerned” of the recent attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and the criminalization of activists.
The group is a global research collaboration of more than 20 organizations that rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.
The watchdog made the downgrade after a year of regular monitoring and a thorough assessment of the state of civic freedom and places the Philippines alongside 43 other countries like Cambodia, Venezuela and Russia. African countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo also suffered a similar downgrade.
A “repressed” rating means democratic freedoms such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are “severely restricted” and is only one notch higher than the lowest rating of “closed” reserved to countries like Iraq, Vietnam, North Korea and China.
In June, the watchdog placed the Philippines on its watchlist due partly to the COVID-19 emergency powers given by Congress to the President, aside from the new anti-terrorism law, the attacks on independent media and red tagging.
“The Duterte government has incrementally chipped away at civic freedoms since it came to power in 2016 but this has further eroded over the last year. In 2020, we have seen systematic intimidation, attacks and vilification of civil society and activists, an increased crackdown on press freedoms and a pervasive culture of impunity take root,” Josef Benedict, Civicus Monitor’s Asia-Pacific researcher, said in a report released Tuesday.
As this developed, the Armed Forces of the Philippines on Tuesday welcomed President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncements Monday that there will be no longer any ceasefire with the communist terrorists during his term.
Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, said they are thankful to the President for heeding their recommendation not to declare a ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army during the yuletide season or even beyond.
"We are thankful to the Commander-in-Chief for heeding the AFP’s recommendation not to declare ceasefire this holiday season and beyond — not because we do not want peace, but because what we advocate is a genuine and lasting peace," he said in a press statement.
Arevalo said this lasting peace cannot be achieved through a peace pact with the NPA as the communist terrorists are "notoriously insincere and unworthy of public trust".
Arevalo was referring to the NPA's penchant for attacking military and civilian targets in the past despite agreeing to a ceasefire agreement with the government.
The AFP earlier said it is not inclined to recommend any holiday truce with the communist terrorists as they have been demonstrating insincerity in previous agreements.
"This was the AFP’s painful experience where the communist terrorist group reneged from their own ceasefire declaration by attacking and killing soldiers on humanitarian and peace and development missions," Arevalo said.
In a public address Monday night, Duterte earlier declared that the ceasefire with the communist rebels as "dead" and said that he was forced to walk away from "peace talks" after the CPP and its political wing, the National Democratic Front asked for the formation of a "coalition government".
“I walked away from the talks because we cannot understand each other. Maybe we were talking in different dialects. I don’t know why. But I just simply cannot understand the way it is being carried by the other side, being played. What was evolving before me was something that is not acceptable to the Republic of the Philippines, lalo na ‘yang (especially this) coalition government. No president, no stupid president will allow it. He will get impeached,” he said.
The President said he cannot compromise anything in the government, particularly the supposed power-sharing the CPP-NPA-NDF asked from him.
Meanwhile, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Debold Sinas also supported Duterte's decision.
“We support the statement of our President. Our deployment remains the same. Even if there is a SOPO (suspension of police operations), we are just on the defense mode but if there is none, our operations continue. We continue to deploy our forces in areas where armed NPA members are known to be hiding. There is no withdrawal of troops and if they are in mountains, our officers would also be there to hunt them,” Sinas said in Filipino during a press conference in Camp Crame.
The CPP-NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines. (with reports from Lloyd Caliwan.
Meanwhile, Benedict explained that ‘civic space’ refers to the environment that allows civil society to access information, engage in dialogue and express dissent.
Among the bases for the downgrade were the killings of peace consultant and land rights activist Randall Echanis and rights activist Zara Alvarez.
Echanis was killed inside his home in Novaliches, Quezon City in August by a group of armed men, who remain at large. Alvarez, meanwhile, was gunned down in a street in Bacolod City just a few days after.
The watchdog said that both Echanis and Alvarez had been “red-tagged” or labelled as communists or terrorists by the government, which placed them at great risk of being targeted.
Also arrested in March and October were two female activists, Teresita Naul and Beatrice Belene, respectively, allegedly on the basis of trumped-up charges.
Sen. Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of the President, remains detained for more than 3 years on what Civicus Monitor claimed as “fabricated” charges.
De Lima’s defense team recently said that the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted on the witness stand that they do not have personal knowledge of the senator’s involvement in the illegal drug trade, following the completion of the prosecution’s presentation of evidence in 2 of her 3 drug cases.
The watchdog added that the attack against Philippine media this year intensified with Maria Ressa’s conviction for cyber libel in June and the shutdown of ABS-CBN's broadcast operations in May after its franchise renewal bid was rejected by the House of Representatives.
“The shutdown of a major outlet, ABS-CBN, is shocking, especially during a pandemic when information is critical to saving lives. Threats and attacks against journalists have contributed to self-censorship and have had a chilling effect within the media sector,” Benedict said.
“On top of this, there are serious concerns that the new anti-terrorism law, which has few safeguards, will institutionalize and facilitate an abuse of power,” he added.
Various rights groups have criticized the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, with 37 petitioners challenging its constitutionality before the Supreme Court due mainly to its vague definition of terrorism and the expansive powers granted to the Anti-Terrorism Council .
The ATC, they claimed, could designate who can be considered terrorists and authorize their arrest without a warrant and detention for up to 24 days, as well as surveillance and freezing of assets through the Anti-Money Laundering Council.
The Supreme Court has set oral arguments on the petitions on January 19, 2021.
In the same month, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council which detailed widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity in the country owing to a “heavy-handed focus” on the fight against national security threats and illegal drugs.
Rights groups had hoped the report would lead to an international, independent probe into the human rights situation in the country but the UNHRC decided to come up with a resolution that would provide technical cooperation and capacity-building for promotion and protection of human rights in the country. The Department of Justice on Monday, which launched a 3-day human rights summit as part of a Philippines-UN joint program on human rights under the UNHRC resolution.
But critics branded the summit as “ironic” and a “big farce” given the Duterte government’s track record and because human rights victims and defenders are not part of the summit.