Duterte’s war on dissent

Lian Buan, Jodesz Gavilan

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Duterte’s war on dissent
The number of human rights defenders charged in the 3 years of the Duterte government is higher than those recorded during the full terms of Benigno Aquino III and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

MANILA, Philippines – Rose Trajano’s work as a human rights advocate has not been easy, but for the last 30 years, she was sure of every action she took despite the job’s risks. 

Once the executive director of the Medical Action Group and now the secretary-general of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, Trajano clearly knows the lines she shouldn’t cross.

She knows the laws that need to be followed and the people she can and cannot engage with, fully aware of every consequence of the controversial work she does.

Until President Rodrigo Duterte.

Now the lines have blurred in Duterte’s intensifying war against dissent which has targeted human rights defenders in the Philippines. (PODCAST: Duterte’s diagrams and his war vs critical media)

Dati black and white iyan eh – alam mo na possible may ma-violate ka at alam mo na wala,” said Trajano, describing the years prior to the Duterte administration. “Ngayon, hindi mo na ma-predict.”

(It used to be black and white – you know when you may possibly violate something and you know when you fully abide by the law. Now, you can’t really predict it anymore.) 

Laws used

The Duterte administration is not afraid to use the law and other legal instruments against any person or group who dares oppose him.

Opposition Senator Leila de Lima is in jail, former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has been ousted, opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV was stripped of a 7-year-old amnesty grant and is on trial for inciting to sedition, and 72-year-old Australian nun Patricia Fox has been deported.

In just 3 years, the Duterte government has charged 2,370 human rights defenders, according to data compiled by rights group Karapatan.

The group said that 1,831 activists and others, who are not members of progressive organizations but are part of communities defending human rights, have been arrested and detained since July 2016. The remaining 539 were arrested but released after.

These 2,370 people have faced or are facing charges – the consequence of doing human rights work in the Philippines, according to Karapatan. (READ: Human Rights: How to deal with Duterte, the biggest challenge?)

Based on Karapatan’s data, the numbers under Duterte are clearly worst of the last 3 administrations. Only 1,817 human rights defenders were charged in the 6 years of Benigno Aquino III, and 2,059 in the 9 years of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose anti-insurgency campaign was marred by alleged human rights violations.

The usual charges are very familiar to this sector – illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of explosives, kidnapping and murder, said National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) president Edre Olalia.

“The Duterte administration is more vicious, more malicious, more unrelenting in red-tagging. It is without let up, it is unscrupulous, and characterized by impunity,” Olalia said.

Trajano said the law can no longer be relied on for protection under the Duterte administration.

Iyong inaasahan mong batas ay puwedeng ma-distort any time,” Trajano said. “Iyong pinaniniwalaan mong konsepto, puwedeng maging false sa susunod na araw.”

(The laws you depend on can be distorted any time. The concepts you believe in may become false the following day.) 

Terror tag

In March 2018, the Duterte government did something that marked the end of a short-lived love affair with the progressives – it filed a court petition to tag as terrorists 649 people, including a United Nations Special Rapporteur. 

Initiated by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the petition blanketly accused the 649 people of being members of, or at least allied with, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Once upon a time, it was a crime to be a communist in the Philippines. In 1992, then-president Fidel Ramos repealed the law that criminalized communism.

So Duterte’s DOJ instead used Republic Act (RA) No. 9372 or the Human Security Act, specifically Section 17 of the law, which states that “any organization, association, or group of persons organized for the purpose of engaging in terrorism….be declared as a terrorist and outlawed organization, association, or group of persons.”

Full of John and Jane Does, the DOJ’s terror list generalized the individuals as members of both the CPP and its armed wing, the New Peoples’ Army whose “very purpose was to overthrow the duly constituted authorities and to seize control of the Philippine Government through armed struggle.”

Five months after filing the petition, then newly-appointed Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra admitted to the House of Representatives that the DOJ did not personally verify the names it included in the terror list.

In January 2019, the DOJ itself trimmed the list to only 8, topped by CPP founding chairman Jose Maria “Joma” Sison, who is in exile in the Netherlands.

Even so, Olalia said the “present petition remains to be without legal and factual basis and repackaged the old one in order to railroad the legal process.”

Trajano said the government’s effort to tag human rights defenders as terrorists is Duterte’s way of shrinking civic space and controling dissent and valid criticism. 

Madali dapat i-assert na hindi kami mga terorista, na hindi kami kalaban ng gobyerno, hindi ba? Wala akong ginagawang kasalanan pero mayroon kang magiging kasalanan dahil nadidistort nila iyon lahat sa pamamagitan ng batas at policy,” said Trajano.

(It should be easy to assert that we’re not terrorists, we’re not the enemy of the government, right? I’m doing anything wrong but you will see yourself tagged as doing something against the law because they can distort everything through laws and policy.) 

Cutting the financial lifeline

The assault is on all fronts, as the Duterte government is attempting to cut the financial lifeline of human rights groups.

In February 2019, the military asked the European Union to stop funding certain groups, including a nun group, for being alleged fronts of communists.

At least 30 groups, Brigadier General Antonio Parlade Jr claimed, are being used to fuel terroristic acts.

One of the groups, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), is accused of teaching children to rebel against the government. RMP said, however, that it is involved in providing indigenous peoples communities access to education. (READ: Rural Missionaries of the PH denies being a communist front

If the government succeeds in urging foreign donors to cut funding for groups in the Philippines, the ultimate victims would be the marginalized sectors supported by civil society organizations.

Hindi kami hihinto sa pagtrabaho kasi volunteers kami pero ang problema, iyong actual na resources to provide the services doon sa mga tao, maaapektuhan,” Trajano said. “Ang impact nga niyan ay sa development talaga sa mga liblib na lugar na hindi maabot ng serbisyo ng gobyerno.” 

(We will not stop working because we’re really volunteers but the problem will really affect the actual resources that will help provide services to the people. The impact is really in the development in far-flung places that government services cannot reach.) 


What they claim the Duterte government is doing is upping the ante on red-tagging.

The Supreme Court defines red-tagging “the act of labelling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/ or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy…by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State’.”

Kung ginagamitan nila tayo ng legal na taktika, kailangan gamitin din natin iyong mga batas para i-correct iyong maling pagtingin sa ating lahat,” Trajano said. “Kailangan mo rin i-maximize iyong lahat ng venues to fight back.” 

(If they’re tapping legal tactics, then let’s also use laws to correct them. We really need to maximize all venues to fight back.) 

The counter-offensive has been to request writs of amparo and habeas data from the courts. 

A writ of amparo is a legal remedy seeking a protection order, while a writ of habeas data asks the Court to compel the respondent to delete or destroy damaging information.

As of writing, the Supreme Court has issued two sets of writs of amparo and habeas data to the NUPL and Karapatan, which both complained of red-tagging by the Duterte government.

The Court of Appeals (CA) is tasked to decide the case further – whether to grant the two groups protection orders from the army, which would look like restraining orders.

“Kami po ay pumunta sa Korte para humingi ng legal protection dahil ang mga threats, ang direct statements po ng Pangulo laban sa Karapatan, ng mga military officials, ay tingin namin, hindi simpleng salita. Ito po ay nagkakatotoo. Kami na nga po ang pinapatay,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said after a CA hearing on June 18 – just 3 days after 22-year-old human rights worker Ryan Hubilla was gunned down by unknown assailants in Sorsogon.

(We are going to the court to ask for legal protection because these threats, these direct statements of the President against Karapatan, of military officials, are not mere words. They have come true. We are being killed.)

Hubilla was supposed to be Karapatan’s witness in the CA hearing.

The issuance of the writs by a Supreme Court that has been criticized for handing Duterte landslide wins gave human rights groups momentum. The writs’ effects – forcing generals to come to court, and compelling an iron-fist administration to explain itself, were hailed as victories, no matter how small.

But in a disappointing turn of events for Karapatan, the appellate court denied on June 28 their request for a protection order, saying that red-tagging “has no direct relation to the circumstances of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.”

NUPL’s Jose Deinla said: “Siguro isa na lang tanong namin: Ilan pa bang patay ang gustong madagdag bago umaksyon ang mga korte (We only have one question: How many more deaths have to be added for the courts to act)?” – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.
Natsu Ando


Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.