Terror-tagging and censorship

On the same day two years ago, then National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr wrote a letter to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) asking the latter to block 27 websites on the pretext that the said websites are affiliated to and are supporting terrorist organizations.

The NTC complied with Esperon’s “request” without thinking, and immediately issued a memorandum ordering internet service providers to block 27 websites, including Bulatlat.

Being accused of committing or supporting terrorism is an extremely serious matter. In his letter to the NTC dated June 6, 2022, Esperon, who at that time, was also vice chairperson of the Anti-Terror Council, did not provide any evidence to support his claims.

Esperon did cite four ATC resolutions designating the Communist Party of the Philippines, National Democratic Front of the Philippines, New People’s Army and members of the CPP central committee as terrorists. Only seven of the 27 sites are linked to the underground revolutionary movement, according to a CPP statement released a few days after the memorandum was exposed.

Esperon and state security forces have coined the term “communist-terrorist” to justify their counterinsurgency operations but communism is not synonymous with terrorism. These words have different meanings.

Communism has ceased to be outlawed in the Philippines since the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law in 1992. Freedom of thought, which includes ideological persuasions, is after all a human right.

Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 19, in her landmark decision, differentiated rebellion and terrorism. She dismissed the petition seeking to declare the CPP and NPA as terrorists, saying that the so-called atrocities alleged by state witnesses “have been committed to achieve a political purpose,” and “have been primarily directed at State agents, and not against civilians.”

In analyzing Malagar’s decision, legal expert Antonio La Viña and researcher Ally Munda argued that even with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2020, terrorism “has not been given a concrete definition by either the international community or within the Philippine jurisdiction.” The ATA only lists terrorist acts, and such acts have to be proven as facts before an organization or individual can be declared as terrorists. The proscription case filed by the government failed to prove that such terrorist acts were committed by the CPP-NPA, Judge Malagar pointed out.

Government officials and their cabal resort to terror-tagging to justify all forms of repression against independent and critical voices, and to obfuscate the roots of the armed conflict, which the Philippine government has so long refused to address.

The state censorship against the 27 websites is just one of the many measures using the anti-terrorism rhetoric without providing concrete evidence. In fact, after “requesting” the blocking of the sites and accusing the organizations as having violated the ATA, Esperon wanted to extricate himself from the civil case filed by Bulatlat. What a coward.

Timeline: The fight against website blocking in the Philippines

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion Irene Khan, after her visit in the Philippines early this year, called the blocking order as a “direct form of censorship.” She added that any restriction to freedom of expression requires a higher degree of scrutiny and should take into account international standards of legality, necessity and proportionality. None of such standards were met when the NTC issued its order.

The NTC memorandum not only violates the right to publish and the right to free expression of the media outfits and organizations but also the right of their readers and subscribers to access alternative information and analyses, including those not found in other websites.

The NTC, under the new leadership of Ella Blanca Lopez, has refused to heed the demand for the junking of the memorandum.

The civil case filed by Bulatlat for the nullification of the NTC memorandum, meanwhile, is pending before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 104. Two years later, defendants NTC, Esperon and the National Security Council have yet to present their evidence.

Four years ago, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), artists and advocates questioned the constitutionality of the ATA, arguing that the law provides a vague definition of crimes and, due the vagueness of the crime of terrorism, violates freedom of speech and expression, among other civil and political rights. The Supreme Court, unfortunately, upheld the ATA, and our fears have become a reality.

Bulatlat appeals to our readers and supporters to continue standing with us as we push back against state censorship. Our calls remain: #UnblockTheTruth, #LetThePeopleKnow and #JunkAntiTerrorAct. (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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