Journalists and activists remain at risk in the Philippines as election looms
The state of civic space remains ‘repressed’ in ratings published by the CIVICUS Monitor in December 2021. Over the last year, the CIVICUS Monitor incidents documented included the vilification and judicial harassment or attacks on activists, journalists and lawyers, freezing of bank accounts of civil society groups and cyberattacks.
In September 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) formally authorised an official probe into alleged crimes against humanity in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”, dealing a moral victory to human rights defenders and families of victims killed. However, the victory was short lived when the ICC announced in November 2021 it was temporarily suspending the probe after that Philippines filed a deferral request on 10th November through its ambassador in the Netherlands. The ICC requested additional information from the Philippines government to assess the scope and effect of the request and to determine whether or not it would continue investigating as it continues to analyse information “already in its possession.” The move has been criticised by human rights groups.
Separately, due to increasing pressure from the United Nations to investigate allegations of systematic murders of drug suspects, the Philippines’ Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in October 2021 that it would review thousands of killings in the war on drugs, releasing details of a first batch of 52 killings that it said pointed to abuses by police.
Ahead of the upcoming elections in May 2022, media groups and journalists are facing libel allegations for reporting on corruption, while a journalist who reported on the ‘drug war’ was killed. A women and child rights advocate has been arrested and detained, and cyber attacks on news websites have been linked to the army.
In more positive news, police have charged two people in the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, the human rights defenders bill has been approved by the House of Representatives and human rights defender Teresita Naul was released.
Media outlets and journalists reporting on corruption faced libel allegations
On 29th November 2021, Alfonso Cusi, the secretary of the Department of Energy, and Dennis Uy, a friend and campaign donor of President Duterte’s, filed libel and cyber libel cases against 21 journalists and 7 media organisations who reported about a corruption complaint against the two over an energy deal.
The complaint was filed before the Office of the Ombudsman on 18th October and the news organisations published the story based on a press conference conducted by the lawyer of the complainants.
Cusi filed the complaints against reporters, editors and executives of Rappler, ABS-CBN, Business World, Philstar, Manila Bulletin, GMA News Online and Business Mirror. The complaints were filed before the Taguig City Prosecutor’s Office.
In a statement, The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines expressed solidarity with the respondents and demanded that charges be dropped. “The complaints, filed at the same time across seven news organisations, are clear harassment suits meant to intimidate and chill the press,” the NUJP said.
The Ombudsman complaint, filed by individuals including US-based Filipino lawyers Rodel Rodis and Loida Nicolas Lewis, accuses Cusi of committing graft over the Department of Energy approval of an Uy subsidiary to buy 45 percent of Malampaya shares from previous consortium member Chevron. The alleged irregularity of the buyout is being investigated by the Senate.
Journalist who reported on ‘drug war’ killed
Slain journalist Jesus “Jess” Malabanan assisted the wire service Reuters in its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of President Duterte’s war on drugs and was provided government security in 2017 to address his concern that he was being surveilled. https://t.co/Q68rVbOhLV— Inquirer (@inquirerdotnet) December 9, 2021
On 8th December 2021, unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shot journalist Jesus “Jess” Malabanan in the head while he was watching television at his family’s store in Calbayog City, Samar province. The journalist was declared dead on arrival at the city’s St. Camillus Hospital. He was the 22nd victim during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Malabanan, a correspondent with the local Manila Standard, Manila Times and Bandera news outlets, was also a long-time stringer for the Reuters news agency. He also helped produce Reuters’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Duterte’s “drug war.”
The Philippines is infamous for being among the most dangerous places in the world to practise journalism, where killings of reporters go largely unpunished.
Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said: “Philippine authorities must leave no stone unturned in identifying the killers of journalist Jesus Malabanan, as well as anyone who planned the attack, and determine whether he was targeted over his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.”
Women and child rights advocate arrested
We call for the immediate release of Maria Salome Crisostomo-Ujano as we condemn how the Duterte administration continues to make this country a dangerous place for dissenters and human rights defenders, including women’s and child rights advocates. https://t.co/7RzQ1x1LvL— Karapatan (@karapatan) November 20, 2021
On 14th November 2021, the authorities arrested Ma. Salome “Sally” Crisostomo-Ujano on the alleged charge of ‘rebellion’ for being involved with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, New People’s Army (NPA).
Sally is the current National Coordinator of Philippines Against Child Trafficking (PACT). She has worked on women and children’s rights with various human rights organisations and networks.
According to human rights group Karapatan, Ujano, 64, was arrested at her home in Malolos, Bulacan by men in civilian clothes, with no identification papers. They were later identified as police intelligence officers and commandos from Central Luzon and Calabarzon.
Ujano was presented with an “order of arrest” dated 2nd October 2020 which said there is a standing warrant against her for a rebellion case issued by Judge Virgilio Alpajora of Lucena City Regional Trial Court Branch 59 dated 28th June 2006. The warrant was only presented to her when she insisted on information on the alleged case against her. At that time, Ujano was executive director of the Women’s Crisis Centre.
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said: “Nothing is more audacious than the PNP commending themselves for the unjust arrest of Ujano by reviving an old baseless charge, and labelling her as a most wanted person who has eluded arrest for 15 years.”
In December 2021, Ujano’s legal counsel filed a motion to quash the information on alleged acts of rebellion that were filed against her in 2006. She is currently detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
Two activists gunned down
On 15th January 2022, two members of farmers group Anakpawis were gunned down. The two - Silvestre Fortades Jr. and Rose Marie Galias - were shot dead in Barangay San Vicente, Barcelona town in Sorsogon. Anakpawis said in a statement that the victims were killed by four unidentified assailants, who used two motorcycles.
The International Coalition for Human Rights (ICHRP) condemned the killings saying: “the murder of the elderly political activist couple is the beginning of state murders in the presidential election campaign period, and must be vigorously condemned.”
Cyber attacks on news website linked to army
In September 2021, two alternative media outfits said a unit under the Department of Information and Communications Technology has confirmed that the cyber-attacks on their websites were linked to the Philippine Army. Bulatlat and Altermidya said that Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-PH) reported that the attacks originated from the internet protocol (IP) address assigned to the Philippine Army.
As previously documented, in May and June 2021, the websites of rights group Karapatan and media outlets Bulatlat and Altermidya were attacked. Sweden-based media foundation Qurium said the attacks took place amid an online solidarity campaign to stop the killings of activists in the Philippines. Qurium were able to trace the attacks to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Philippine Army as well as the Department of Science and Technology.
Karapatan demanded “immediate action from authorities to ensure accountability and non-repetition of these underhanded attacks by State forces to undermine press freedom”. They also called on the House of Representatives and the Senate to “scrutinise public funds used in these cyberattacks, especially during the deliberations for the national budget in 2022”.
Police charged for two of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings
Latest AO35 resolution a victory in long, arduous struggle for justice— Charm Maranan (@CharmMaranan) January 14, 2022
DEFEND Southern Tagalog welcomes the filing of charges against the perpetrators of the murders of Emmanuel "Ka Manny" Assuncion, Ana Mariz "Chai" Lemita-Evangelista, and Ariel Evangelista. pic.twitter.com/TJPYsluNrR
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on 14th January 2021 filed murder complaints against 17 cops over the killing of two of nine activists killed during the “Bloody Sunday” operations in March 2021.
In a statement, the NBI said it had filed the case before the Department of Justice for the killing of activists Ariel Evangelista and Ana Mariz “Chai” Lemita-Evangelista in Nasugbu, Batangas. According to the six-page complaint, the NBI found that the cops who implemented a search warrant on the Evangelista couple had a “deliberate intent to kill.”
However, there has been no progress to hold the perpetrators accountable for the killings of the other seven activists. As previously documented, on 7th March 2021, members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the military killed nine community-based activists in coordinated raids across four provinces in the Calabarzon region.Known as the “Bloody Sunday” killings, it highlighted the continuous attacks against the government’s critics. Two days prior to this incident, Duterte had issued a shoot-to-kill order targeting communist rebels, saying, “If the enemy is holding a gun, kill them. Kill them right away”. He further noted “Ignore human rights. That is my order”.
The police claimed the operations were meant to arrest alleged communist New People’s Army rebels identified in search warrants issued by two Manila courts. The Philippine security forces have a long history of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of leftist activists and human rights defenders.
Supreme Court rules parts of terrorism law unconstitutional
In December 2021, the Supreme Court upheld most of the provisions of the anti-terror law. The law was passed in record time in the middle of the pandemic and was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2021.
As previously documented, the law includes a worryingly overbroad definition of terrorism. It will also grant Philippine police and military personnel the power to detain suspects without a warrant or charge for up to 24 days for investigation and relaxes accountability for law enforcement agents who violate the rights of suspects, particularly those in detention.
Further, the broad role of the Anti-Terrorism Council under the new law places people’s liberty rights at considerable risk. The council can now designate individuals and organisations as terrorists without any hearing, as long as it sees “probable cause” that they commit, attempt to commit or are part of a conspiracy to commit acts defined and penalised as terrorism under Sections 4 to 12 of the law.
Lawyers, journalists and rights groups had petitioned the Supreme Court to remove sections of the law they argued were unconstitutional.
At the same time, the Supreme Court of the Philippines announced that Justices had voted to strike down two portions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
The qualifier under Section 4(e) – that terrorism as defined by the law does not include advocacy, protest, dissent and similar actions “which are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety” – is declared unconstitutional “for being overbroad and violative of freedom of expression”, according to the Supreme Court. With this decision, this part now reads: “Provided that terrorism as defined in this section shall not include advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights.”
The Supreme Court also declared unconstitutional the power of the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate a person or a group as terrorists based on a request by another country and upon determination that it meets the criteria of relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
Responding to the judgment, Butch Olano, Amnesty International Philippines Section Director said: “The decision by the Supreme Court highlights key dangers of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 – its overbroad definition of terrorism and the overreaching powers it grants the Anti-Terrorism Council. However, only two portions of the law were declared unconstitutional, and it remains deeply flawed and open to abuse by government authorities”.
Human rights defenders bill approved by House of Representatives
The House of Representatives on 17th January 2022 passed a bill that seeks to protect and define the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders in the Philippines. A total of 200 legislators voted to approve House Bill No. 10576, the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, on third and final reading. No one voted against it or abstained.
The bill spells out 17 rights and freedoms to be enjoyed by human rights defenders, once passed into law. The bill also highlights the state’s obligations and seeks to establish a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee, an “independent collegial body” composed of members nominated by civil society organisations and appointed by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The committee will ensure that the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders are protected. It also has the function to investigate incidents of abuse or violations, whether on its own or based on a complaint filed by victims.
However, there are concerns that the bill may stall in the Senate.According to the Senate website, SBN-179 or the proposed Human Rights Defenders Protection Act has been pending at the committee level since 2019.
Human rights defender released
🇵🇭 #Philippines: CIVICUS welcomes the release of the human rights defender #TeresitaNaul after 19 months of arbitrary detention. We call for the release of all other detained activists in the country: ➡️https://t.co/LsFzxH6xvz #StandAsMyWitness #16Days pic.twitter.com/EMDWpj8OK0— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) December 3, 2021
On 28th October 2021, human rights defender Teresita Naul was released from Agusan del Sur Provincial jail after 19 months in detention after the courts dismissed the charges against her.
According to the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), the court held as “inadequate the affidavits of complainants” from the army and that “the facts and circumstances led it to believe that the accused has not committed the offences charged”. Furthermore, the court also condemned the prosecution for the excessive delay of more than a year taken solely for reinvestigation.
Teresita Naul, or “Nay Tessie”, as she is commonly known in the Philippines, has dedicated her life to protecting the poorest and the most marginalised. She is a regional council member for the human rights group Karapatan in Northern Mindanao and a staff member of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM).
Naul was arrested on 15th March 2020 in Lanao del Sur, on the southern island of Mindanao, by the national police and the Philippines Army (AFP) on fabricated charges of “kidnapping”, “destructive arson”, and “serious illegal detention”. Police claimed she was a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), an armed Communist rebel group responsible for an attack on the military in Agusan del Sur in December 2018. However, there was evidence proving that she was in another part of the country on that day.
An enquiry carried out by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on 28th December 2020 found that Teresita had been wrongfully “red-tagged”, that is, branded as a Communist. While in detention, Naul’s health deteriorated in overcrowded and unsanitary prison conditions, putting her life at serious risk given her severe asthma and bronchitis.