The Philippine government wants to censor social media in the guise of containing the spread of terrorism, further clipping the flow of free information that could save lives during pandemics and other disasters or blow the whistle on official corruption.
The new Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, has announced the military’s inputs for implementing rules of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. Among this is the regulation of social media.
“This platform (is) now being used by the terrorists to radicalize, to recruit and even plan terrorist acts,” Gapay said.
This proposal fails on two fronts.
First, any planning of genuine acts of terrorism occur in private settings, often on the dark web, not on the raucous fields of open platforms. Second, and an even more important point, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte equates terrorism with all forms of dissent.
The latter is a key feature of Duterte’s governance. It is a common point raised in 21 challenges filed with the Supreme Court against his anti-terror law.
Angry that the health professionals’ message had trended on social media, he demanded that those seeking reforms should just seek a private audience. He also accused them, falsely, of fomenting “revolution”.
Crushing democratic space
Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, cited a Filipino cover of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing,” the anthem of the barricades in the hit musical “Les Miserables”.
Artists, not doctors, performed the song, which got a million views in just 24 hours. Roque claimed Duterte’s pique was fired by a series of public criticism from the opposition, coupled with citizens’ use of the song to highlight the crises in health, the economy, and social justice.
Given the president’s paranoia and the military’s knee-jerk response to problems, the latest solution for sweeping the country’s problems under a blanket of silence doesn’t surprise.
Main authors of the measure and Duterte’s office earlier dismissed concerns by claiming it would not touch social media, where 90 percent of Filipinos with access to the internet spend hours daily.
But the controversial law allows a small council — composed mainly of the same ex-generals who have made a mess of pandemic containment — to order arrests of citizens they perceive as harboring terrorist intentions.
Intention is the keyword.
In Duterte’s four-year rule, he has accused the political opposition and activist groups of all kinds of conspiracies whenever they expose corruption, foreign policy errors or human rights violations.
It started with critics of his drug war supposedly aiding narcotics syndicates. It soon morphed into rights defenders being in bed with terrorists.
The police head of the national capital region recently ordered the arrest of citizens showing placards criticizing the government. Police also arrested aid givers during the lockdown, charging them with inciting to sedition for holding copies of the leftwing publications and pamphlets, and for putting up signs calling for COVID-19 mass testing.
Social media is an important battlefield for advocates of good governance. It has gained even more importance with the COVID-19 quarantine hobbling the capacity to mount huge mobilizations.
The regime tried early to control public opinion with a well-oiled propaganda machine that specialized in disinformation and manufactured noise. As social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, under intense public pressure, cracked down on automated accounts and fake personas, and as fact-checking partnerships exposed the main channels of lies, the government has struggled to put a lid on digital protest.
With a weakened digital army, the main propaganda tasks fell on Duterte and his Cabinet officials. The media covers them closely, but often corrects their lies much later, gifting them with a free first ride.
Still, millions of netizens forced to stay home by the pandemic hit back swiftly and with plenty of creativity.
In response, red-tagging efforts have also doubled. Youth leaders and labor organizers are particularly vulnerable; officials see those two sectors as the fulcrums of broad protests. Middle-class professionals, a small group that bats beyond its numbers, have also become a favorite target during the pandemic.
The state knows that its lies cannot defeat truth-tellers and so it now aims to deploys brute force. As always, when Duterte’s gaslight tactics fail, he falls back on “kill”.
The military’s solution against terrorists won’t defeat them. But that wasn’t the regime’s goal. The real enemy of Duterte is the Filipino people — those who refuse to be his slaves.
Inday Espina-Varona is an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. She is a recipient of the “Prize for Independence” of the Reporters Without Borders in 2018. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.