Armed Forces of the Philippines

AFP chief Gapay gets CA nod, says he’s not against free speech on social media

JC Gotinga

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AFP chief Gapay gets CA nod, says he’s not against free speech on social media

Gapay on social media regulation: Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay assures members of the powerful Commission on Appointments Wednesday, September 2, 2020 that the AFP has no intention of regulating social media and restraining its use as freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution. (Alex NuevaEspaña/Senate PRIB)

Armed Forces chief of staff Gilbert Gapay, however, insists on the need for ‘mechanisms’ to stem terrorism being pushed via the internet

Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay – now promoted to general as chief of the military – said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) never intended to curtail free speech when he suggested “regulating” the use of social media under the newly enacted Anti-Terrorism Law.

What he would push for are “mechanisms” on how to “regulate the actions” of terrorist groups on the internet, especially in the dark web.

“We most respectfully submit that the AFP is a mere implementor of existing laws and regulations…. We humbly acknowledge that we cannot expand the implementation of the law beyond the parameters contemplated by the legislators,” Gapay said on Wednesday, September 2, as he faced lawmakers comprising the Commission on Appointments (CA).

The CA was holding a hearing on whether to confirm Gapay’s appointment and corresponding promotion, as well as those of more than a dozen other military officers.

Some senators earlier criticized Gapay when he said on August 3 that regulating the use of social media should be included in the Anti-Terrorism Law’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR). The IRR defines how a law would be implemented.

Prior restraint

Senator Panfilo Lacson and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon – proponents of the Anti-Terrorism Law – rebuffed Gapay’s statement, saying the measure does not provide for “prior restraint” on people’s freedom of expression, including on social media.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Drilon asked Gapay to clarify his position, and reminded him that prior restraint on people’s use of social media is illegal, even with the Anti-Terrorism Law.

“The AFP has absolutely no intention to curtail the people’s freedom of expression through social media when I gave that statement about the possibility and the need to regulate social media to combat terrorism,” Gapay replied.

The military “remains steadfast” in upholding the people’s constitutional rights, including to freedom of expression and assembly, he said.

“However, in line with this is also the AFP’s mandate to protect the people’s lives, property, and secure [them] in general from lawless violence and acts of terrorism, as well as to protect the sovereignty of our country from external and internal threats,” Gapay added.

Social media platforms’ accountability

The military chief went on to say that the focus of this “regulation” would be the social media platforms and not the users. This is because terrorist groups use social media and the internet in general to communicate among themselves to promote terrorism, recruit members, source financing, and other forms of support.

“The goal of this regulation will be to make social media platforms, the service providers more liable for the content they host. This includes their responsibility to enforce the traceability of content purportedly to enable accountability,” Gapay said.

Drilon pointed out that regulating social media platforms would still amount to prior restraint on communication, which is unlawful. The Anti-Terrorism Law punishes actions such as promoting, assisting, and inciting to terrorism. Punishments come after the fact, not before them, he said.

Lacson echoed Drilon. “We cannot regulate social media, but the actual act of committing violations of the newly-passed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, that is what will be addressed, that is what will be punished as contemplated in the law.”

Lacson asked Gapay to state whether he agreed with this.

“Yes, we confirm that we do not intend to really curtail freedom of expression as guaranteed by our Constitution and, of course, we don’t want to curtail or impose prior restraint to anybody,” Gapay answered.

Terror groups

Still, the military chief said there ought to be mechanisms – as far as the law would allow – to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting social media.

Drilon reminded Gapay that under the law, the remedy is to file charges against those found guilty of violations, not prior restraint on their communications.

Seeing the debate could go on and on, Drilon put the matter to rest.

“Those views are now on the record, and in the appropriate time, we will be recalling, if need be, these policy statements of the good general in case this comes up in the public forum again,” Drilon said, referring to Gapay’s responses to the panel’s questions.

Revolutionary government?

Drilon then asked Gapay about his position on a group’s call for a “revolutionary government.” The general earlier said he found it “unconstitutional and politically motivated.”

Gapay reiterated his view. “It is unconstitutional and, yes, we find it politically motivated, and it will cause more harm than good at this point in time in our country.”

Drilon then asked Gapay whether he would allow any member of the military to support such a call.

“Although we are entitled individually, Mr Chairman, Your Honor, but as the Armed Forces of the Philippines, we will not allow anybody to be part of this movement and to actively participate in the furtherance of the goals and objectives of the group pushing for the establishment of a revolutionary government,” Gapay said.

Satisfied with Gapay’s answers, Drilon concluded his interpellation.

“With those reassurances, both in terms of the revolutionary government and the terms of the regulation of social media, I want to place on record that the nominee has my vote and my support in his confirmation process,” Drilon said.

The Commission on Appointments confirmed Gapay’s posting as chief of staff of the AFP, and his promotion to the 4-star rank of General. –

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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.