Editorial Notes

Covid-19 response should be prioritised over anti-terror bill in the Philippines: Inquirer

In its editorial, the Inquirer says that under the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, anyone deemed to have committed terrorist acts by an Anti-Terrorism Council may be arrested with no need for a court-issued warrant.

A health worker (centre) assists people lining up for a rapid test in Manila on May 24, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With the nation seemingly stuck in crisis mode, lurching from one disaster to another since the year began, one may think Congress would be feverishly at work tackling issues crucial to public welfare and well-being before it adjourns this week.

We mean issues such as those involving the Covid-19 pandemic that has upended life as Filipinos know it, resulting in, among others, mass unemployment, and a wrenching need that the administration displays itself ill-equipped to address.

But no. As though the public health system were not crumbling, as though the Department of Health were not demonstrating a frightening incompetence even in explaining the length and breadth of the contagion, the House of Representatives has adopted an anti-terror measure passed early this year by the Senate, the easier to get it through the legislative mill.

And President Duterte has not surprisingly certified it as urgent, delivering the signal to his supermajority to get cracking and get it done.

Think about it: The Philippines may be nowhere near a plateau in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 - whether "fresh" or "late," in the mystifying formulation of Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire - but it is well on the way to passing a bill that, as described by Amnesty International Philippines, "provides few safeguards against abuse and gives law enforcers exhaustive powers, including electronic surveillance that could lead to discriminatory and arbitrary arrest and may result in prolonged detention without charges."

Senate Bill No. 1083, or the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, was passed in February on a vote of 19-2.

Last week, as though it had nothing better to do, two House committees adopted the measure which seeks to repeal certain provisions of the Human Security Act of 2007 and to "strengthen" the Philippines' capability to fight terrorism.

In fact, the bill is aimed at giving the executive branch more leeway to flex muscle, to the extent of bestowing on it powers wielded solely by the judiciary. Jose Manuel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group and Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties (CLCL) puts it succinctly: The bill authorises politicians to usurp powers granted by the Constitution exclusively to the courts.

Under the proposed measure, anyone deemed by an Anti-Terrorism Council to have committed terrorist acts may be arrested on its mere say-so - that is to say, with no need for a court-issued warrant.

The suspected person's phones may be tapped for an indefinite time; he or she may be detained for up to 24 days without being presented to a judge.

On top of all these, any official found to have wrongfully arrested the suspected person will not be liable for damages specified in the law.

In brief, the proposed bill expands the definition of acts of terrorism, prolongs the period within which a suspect may be held after a warrantless arrest, prolongs as well the length of time a suspect may be put on surveillance, and does away with the penalties - for example, P500,000 ($13,922)for each day of wrongful detention - for officials found to have patently flubbed the legal process.

Only Senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan voted against SB 1083 under which the Anti-Terrorism Council - composed of the executive secretary; the heads of the foreign affairs, national defence, interior and local government, finance, justice, and information and communications technology departments; national security adviser; and executive director of the Anti-Money Laundering Council - will be formed.

At the House, only the members of the Makabayan bloc of lawmakers and Quezon City Rep. Kit Belmonte opposed it.

This dangerous measure comes at a time when the government's inadequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted not only in public suffering but also in the steady shrinking of the democratic space.

This includes unequal treatment of quarantine violators (a street vendor is beaten to within an inch of his life and thrown into jail and partying police brass are shamelessly indulged); tarring of dissenters (activists are Red-tagged, even routinely insulted, such as when a Palace functionary called Diokno "asymptopangit" after her boss ridiculed the human rights lawyer's teeth); and threats for those expressing displeasure at the government (attempted deportation of a Filipino woman worker in Taiwan) or, simply, hunger ("shoot them," the big guy said).

The proposed Anti Terror Act "swivels the definition of terrorism from its effects upon the people toward its effect upon the government - e.g that the acts are 'provocation' or 'intimidation' of the government," the CLCL warned, adding that even ordinary folk voicing grievances against the government online "may fall within its ambit."

It portends to be a knee on the national neck. Already, we can't breathe.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.