‘Hard sell?’ Military boasts rosy poll results as it faces criticism over new anti-terror bill

JC Gotinga
‘Hard sell?’ Military boasts rosy poll results as it faces criticism over new anti-terror bill
An SWS poll shows high public satisfaction with the AFP, just as Congress decides on a law that gives the military broader powers in pursuing terror suspects

“I’m gonna play devil’s advocate, haPopular na nga kayo. Ba’t hard sell ka pa, General?” Veteran journalist Marichu Villanueva asked Marine Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo in front of dozens of other reporters during the weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay at the nostalgic Cafe Adriatico in Malate on Wednesday morning, March 4. (I’m gonna play devil’s advocate, okay? You’re already popular. Why so hard sell, General?)

Arevalo, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), had just given the lowdown on a nationwide public opinion survey – fielded back in December – which showed that 79% of Filipinos were satisfied with the military’s performance, and only 5% weren’t.

A big majority of the poll’s 1,200 respondents also said they were “much confident” in the AFP’s capability to fight and beat communist rebels and terrorists, although slightly less so when it came to foreign intruders in the West Philippine Sea.

It’s all because of the military’s professionalism and commitment to excellence, Arevalo said. The AFP is now also “modestly modern” with a slew of brand new assets and weapons, quite unlike the severely hamstrung force it had been in decades past.

The pollster Social Weather Stations’ deputy director, Vladymir Joseph Licudine, said the “excellent” ratings were a residue of the AFP’s victory over terrorists in the 5-month siege of Marawi City in 2017. Ideal depictions of the military in TV shows and movies, and the absence of any scandalous news about it also help its public image, Licudine added.

Surveys by private, professional pollsters come neither free nor cheap, Villanueva teased Arevalo: “So you had a budget for this!”

At Arevalo’s urging, Licudine pointed out that the AFP commissioned only 4 “rider” questions to go along with SWS’ quarterly public opinion polls, which meant it only paid a small fraction of the survey’s total cost.

Throughout the presser, Arevalo fielded questions on issues the AFP currently faces: the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, the deployment of Navy ships to the Middle East supposedly to repatriate Filipinos in conflict-riddled areas, even the role of women in the military (March is women’s month).

The toughest questions, however, were about the amended Human Security Act, currently up for debate and likely to be passed by both chambers of Congress.

The AFP currently faces criticism from progressive groups and activists for pushing for the toughened anti-terrorism measure that would give the military and the police broader powers and ease restrictions on surveilling, arresting, detaining, and probing terror suspects.

The Senate passed its version of the amended measure last week, and the House of Representatives is currently tackling its own version. If passed, the law will broaden the definition of terrorism and punish those who incite, conspire, or threaten to commit terroristic acts – aside from those who actually commit them.

Critics said the measure would effectively criminalize dissent and opposition to the government, which would be unconstitutional. They anticipate abuses and human rights violations under the new law that would give soldiers and cops more maneuverability in dealing with suspected terrorists, especially when calling for protest rallies and other forms of resistance to the government could be interpreted as “terrorism” or inciting to it.

Arevalo denied this, saying the bill itself contains safeguards against abuse by law enforcers, such as stringent specifications on electronic surveillance, and 10 years’ imprisonment for erring police and military investigators.

The measure would even help the AFP promote human rights, the general insisted.

But if the military enjoys strong public support, as the survey suggests, then why does it seem to be on the defensive? Why release the survey results – with its flattering figures – now that the law it had been seeking is a few steps away from passage? And several months after December, when the survey was conducted?

As Villanueva wondered, why the hard sell? 

“We are not hard selling, but it’s worthy for the public to know what we are doing, what is the stand of your Armed Forces on important matters that other people, other groups, and other institutions are trying to erode, are trying to say otherwise to discredit the Armed Forces,” Arevalo replied. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.