Experts, advocates say terror law is dangerous, open to abuse

Oct. 26, 2020

Lawyer Howard Calleja, Sen. De Lima’s chief of staff Fhilip Sawali, ABS-CBN anchor and reporter Christian Esguerra and Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago point out the dangers of the Terror Law and its implementing rules and regulations in a webinar organized by the Movement Against Tyranny last week.

By Anne Marxze D. Umil

MANILA, Philippines – Martial Law survivor and activist nun Sr. Mary John Mananzan urged the Supreme Court to swiftly act on the 37 petitions filed against the Anti-Terror Act (ATA) of 2020.

In an online forum early last week that discussed the implications of the Anti-Terror Act, Mananzan, who is co-convenor of the Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) expressed her anxiety with the release of the law’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) by the Department of Justice (DOJ) last week.

This fear was echoed by experts and concerned citizens who see the potential of the law of being abused and used against those who simply want to express their opinion on issues affecting the country.

Lawyer Howard Calleja, a litigation and law professor, the first to file a petition against the ATA, said both the law and the IRR are unconstitutional and against the rule of law.

He emphasized that the definition of terrorism under the ATA and its IRR is vague and broad. This is made more dangerous, he said, when law enforcers, not the courts, are given the authority to determine if an act or a person is a terrorist.

Calleja, however, is still optimistic that despite the danger that the law poses to those critical of the government, people’s rights should still be recognized as it is enshrined in the Constitution.

“We cannot be afraid and be silent because we will let them win in doing so,” he said.

On potential implications of the ATA

Calleja said that even if the IRR of the ATA does not consider as acts of terrorism such activities as advocacy, protest, dissent, work stoppage, industrial or mass action, artistic and cultural expressions, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights, the ensuing paragraph, which is subject to different interpretations by law enforcers, can be potentially dangerous.

“What is the definition of risk to public safety? That is not defined,” he said.

Calleja was referring to Rule 4.4 of the IRR which says that a person whose act would “cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety may be held liable for the crime of terrorism.”

Threat even before the ATA

Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago pointed out that even before the ATA, state forces have been consistently red-tagging progressive groups leading to their arrest and detention on trumped-up charges, and for some, even becoming victims of extrajudicial killings.

She pointed out that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have also been ruthless in vilifying activists especially in their social media platforms.

Elago said that lies have been fabricated against her and members of the Makabayan bloc who have been opposing anti-people measures that are being pushed by the Duterte administration like the ATA.

Elago related how Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana defended the vilifying posts of the AFP and PNP during the budget hearing at the House of Representatives. Lorenzana, she said, claimed that there was a basis to the posts that would condone it and justify the terrorist tag.

However, she reiterated the falsity of the claims and said that measures have been taken to hold the perpetrators of the red-tagging accountable. These steps include the seeking for an investigation by the Cybercrime Division of the National Bureau of Investigation on the social media posts. As of writing, none have been held accountable for the posts.

Elago reiterated that terrorist tagging is a threat to right to life.

She said that even the report of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights pointed out that such labeling incites hate and harm against the youth and other groups.

Shrinking space of democracy

This was also the observation of veteran journalist Christian Esguerra who was recently named as the 2020 Marshall McLuhan fellow by the Embassy of Canada in the Philippines.

He said that even before the ATA was enacted, the government has been using existing laws against its critics.

Esguerra, who is also an anchor for ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), said that the ATA is a tool that could be used to suppress legitimate dissent and that it could worsen the climate of fear that is now felt in the media industry.

“I don’t think this is healthy for a democracy. The democracy in our country is becoming smaller,” he said, pointing out that the vagueness of the law and the government’s intolerance towards dissent is a lethal combination.

Esguerra cited the cases filed against Rappler and its chief executive officer, Maria Ressa, the attack on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the closure of ABS-CBN.

“Anyone can be labeled a terrorist, even journalists,” he said, adding that the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) is often tagged as a front organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA).

“What if something in your article can be construed as inciting to terrorism, can the journalist be implicated for the article?” Esguerra asked.

“There are many questions that need to be answered and I am not necessarily calmed by the assurances coming from the proponents of the law that you have nothing to fear because you are not a terrorist,” he continued.

Esguerra fears that with the ATA the 1957 Anti-Subversion Law has been revived.

The Anti-Subversion Law made membership to the CPP a crime. It was repealed in 1992 at the time of then President Fidel V. Ramos, by virtue of the peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

However, Esguerra pointed out that under the Duterte administration, groups that are critical to the government are being accused to be members or front organizations of the CPP-NPA, tagging them as “terrorist.”

This tagging has real consequences, Esguerra said.

‘Make a stand’

With this, Esguerra urged his colleagues to make a stand saying that this is not only an issue of freedom of expression but of democracy.

“We cannot be blindsided and take the present situation for granted,” he said.

Sen. Leila De Lima meanwhile called the ATA as the “root of the evil abomination” and so, she said that all efforts now “should be geared towards this law declared unconstitutional by the SC.”

She added that the ATA is an opportunity to continue “organizing and politicizing the people to fight for their rights and to struggle for political freedom and injustice.”

“Our fight and our struggle against tyranny, dictatorship, authoritarianism, and militarization demands no less. It demands that we kill this law, lest it kills all us in the end,” De Lima pointed out in a speech read by her chief of staff, Fhilip Sawali.

De Lima believes that just like during martial law, the people fought against draconian laws and won. “I know the same will hold true for us no matter the law or precisely because of ATA. We will continue fighting to defend our rights and our people, from oppression and tyranny,” De Lima said. (Reposted by

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