Democracy faces 'death by a thousand cuts' with looming anti-terror law – Maria Ressa

The impending passage of the anti-terrorism bill into law could institutionalize the abuses of the government, Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa said Saturday, June 13.

At a virtual forum by US documentary program Frontline and the International Center for Journalists, Ressa explained the dangers of the anti-terrorism bill.

"The passage of this anti-terror bill with just a President's signature essentially institutionalizes the death by a thousand cuts," Ressa said.

"This anti-terror bill could essentially codify, institutionalize the abuses – what we used to say of abuses of power…Even the definition of what a terrorist could be expanded. A government critic could now effectively be made a terrorist if the anti-terror council (ATC) decides you're a terrorist," Ressa said.

Under the bill, suspected terrorists could be placed under a 60-day surveillance, which may be extended up to 30 days. They could also be arrested without a warrant and be jailed for 14 days, up to 24 days.

If passed, the measure would give the ATC the power to "designate" terrorists. The bill – which was certified as urgent – is awaiting the President Rodrigo Duterte's signature. Duterte may choose to veto it or not do anything at all – and wait for it to lapse into law by July 9.

"I think the Philippines is at the precipice. Are we going into a fundamentally changed system of governments? Or will we be able to retain the rights [under] the Constitution as it stands? That's now truly at risk," Ressa said.

Ressa pointed out that the government has weaponized the law even before Congress passed the anti-terrorism bill, citing the case of detained Senator Leila de Lima who has been in jail for 3 years.

"All these kinds of legal acrobatics, the law has been weaponized. And now the question is if it's codified into law, it becomes the norm," Ressa said.

Rappler and Ressa are facing a total of 11 court cases, complaints, and investigations. On Monday, June 15, the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 will hand down its verdict on Rappler, Ressa, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr in the high profile cyber libel case. (VERDICT PRIMER: Legal and factual issues in Rappler, Maria Ressa cyber libel case)

'Demand from Facebook'

Another weaponized front is social media. Ressa said that the attacks online means to "pound pe'All these kinds of legal acrobatics, the law has been weaponized. And now the question is if it's codified into law, it becomes the norm,' says Rappler CEO Maria Ressaople into silence" and sway public opinion to create a "bandwagon effect."

To fight disinformation, a central issue to blatant undermining of press freedom and democracy, Ressa said that people should demand actions from Facebook.

"Let's talk to Facebook. Demand better behavior from Facebook. Demand that Facebook protect its users from manipulators. And if Facebook does that, then we shouldn't be subjected to many attacks or manipulation," Ressa said.

In a 3-part report in 2016, Ressa had reported that pro-Duterte political pages and accounts ran by paid trolls have been used to shift public opinion.

She said that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed social media platforms to take down content meant to spread disinformation.

"Now the question is: can they do that with political disinformation? When they're own money and power, lobbying forces, when that's what is at stake? Because news groups do that all the time," Ressa said.

"We do things that go against the best interest of the news groups – of its business – if it's the right thing to protect the public sphere," Ressa added.

Ressa also noted the President's "use of violence" both in language and acts. "Is that the kind of world that you want to live in? You're in charge of your world. Call it out." – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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