This is the third part of The Killing State: 2019 Philippine Human Rights Situationer, a report released by PhilRights to describe key events in 2019 that have impacted the human rights situation in the country. This section describes the ways in which the Duterte administration’s violence has led to shrinking civic spaces in the Philippines, tracing the cause to the government’s national security policy. [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 4]
by PhilRights Staff
“Haven’t we pondered if our situation today is not normal? The fact that we have to hide…isn’t that unusual?”
This two-part question, posed by PhilRights Executive Director Prof. Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan before an audience of journalists in September 2019, has become a common refrain among human rights defenders (HRDs) in Pres. Duterte’s Philippines. And it isn’t merely rhetorical—HRDs across the country report growing unease and disbelief with the degree with which the Duterte government has encroached upon civic spaces in the country.
At work is a wide-ranging application of Pres. Duterte’s core principle of governance: violence. In 2019, as in the past three years, the government’s playbook remains simple and chillingly effective—normalize violence, frame civic participation as a destabilizing force which must be quelled, and weaponize the legal apparatus against key civic society and media figures in order to demoralize resistance.
This year is one of heightened violence, sown in cities and in the countryside and intended to instill terror among those who refuse to toe the line. In Metro Manila and many urban areas, the scourge of the government’s so-called war on drugs continues to turn communities into killing fields. In the countryside, intensifying militarization is followed by a rising death toll among civilians, State forces, and non-State armed groups.
The brazen January killing of Randy Malayao, consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and its spokesperson in the negotiating panel with the Philippine government, was a harbinger for the bloody year to come. Malayao was shot dead in the morning of January 30 while asleep inside a bus bound for Cagayan province.
Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Global Operations, Minar Pimple, described the killing as “yet another addition to the growing list of political activists who have been attacked and killed in the country,” adding that “[a]larmingly, ties to leftist or communist groups, perceived or otherwise, have given some an apparent license to kill.”
Two weeks before, in Negros Oriental, a joint military and police operation concluded with seven persons dead and 40 others arrested. This was followed in March by another round of killings, this time from a series of operations in Sta. Catalina and Majuyod towns and in Canlaon City, all in Negros Oriental, with 14 farmers killed.
The bloodiest spate of killings was still to come. Over a 10-day period, from July 18 until July 28, 21 people were killed, mostly at home by armed men. The killings reached a crescendo on July 25, when seven people were killed over 24 hours.
Human rights defenders in the area report that most of these deaths are linked to counterinsurgency operations, land conflict, local politics, and illegal drugs. Judy Taguiwalo, former Department of Social Welfare and Development secretary has called the Negros killings “a war against unarmed civilians.”
A group of Eastern Visayas farmers, meanwhile, reported at least 34 extrajudicial killings across Samar and Leyte provinces, among many other human rights violations, in a span of 12 months. At least 10 of the victims are barangay or municipal officials who resisted against intensified militarization in their communities.
Violence as State Policy
Tracing the cause of this culture of violence and impunity that has targeted activists and human rights defenders leads us to the Duterte government’s own national security policy, manifested in executive issuances intended to demonstrate the government’s might against “lawless violence” in the country.
Among them, Proclamation No. 55 issued in September 2016, which placed the Philippines in a state of national emergency, and has remained in place for the past three years. This was followed days later by Memorandum Order No. 3, which identified the guidelines for military and police forces in carrying out the orders of the earlier proclamation, including increased presence in public areas and intensified intelligence operations on individuals and groups “suspected of, or responsible for, committing or conspiring to commit acts of lawless violence.”
And then there is Proclamation No. 216 issued in May 2017, which placed the entire region of Mindanao under Martial Law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, following the Siege of Marawi. The proclamation, which requires Congress approval, has been extended twice, once in 2017 and again in 2018. It remained in place until December 2019.
Memorandum Order No. 32, issued in November 2018, further sharpened the government’s national security priorities toward counterinsurgency and upon traditional hotbeds of communist armed rebellion—the provinces of Samar, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, and the Bicol region. This was followed a month later by Executive Order No. 70 which institutionalized a “whole-of-nation” approach to attaining “inclusive and sustainable peace.” The executive order also facilitated the creation of a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is empowered to “[e]nlist the assistance of any department, bureau, office, agency, or instrumentality of the government, including LGUs, government-owned or -controlled corporations (GOCCs), and state universities and colleges (SUCs), in accordance with their respective mandates, in the implementation of the Framework,” among other wide-ranging functions.
Attacks on the Ground
In implementation, these issuances have done little to achieve peace. As the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) noted in November, Memorandum Order No. 32 has “intensified operations by the [Philippine National Police], [Armed Forces of the Philippines], and the Department of Justice against so-called “individuals or groups conspiring to commit acts of lawless violence in the country.””
For the farmers of Eastern Visayas, the implementation of MO No. 32 has “mired us into a deeper crisis,” with them reporting that military encampments in their communities have imposed strict curfew hours. “We are restricted to stay in our farmlands beyond 4 p.m. or we will be tagged as members and supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA) if we do otherwise,” said the group’s statement in November, one year since the issuance of MO No. 32. The result is massive losses in livelihood, further exacerbated by falling palay and copra prices, the onslaught of plant viruses, and the still ongoing economic crisis brought about by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
The whole-of-nation approach, a warmed-over framework borrowed from the United States’ armed interventions in foreign countries, has, according to PAHRA, mostly “[targeted] opposition groups especially those working at the grassroots level.” The alliance has received reports of intensified monitoring and profiling efforts on members of people’s organizations, including having police and military sit in on activities of NGOs and their communities and stopping discussions they deem not favorable to the government.
At least two issuances from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in 2019 have spelled out how EO No. 70 will be implemented on the ground. Key to the framework is the formation of task forces from the national to the barangay level, and based on recent developments, the task forces have been hard at work at utilizing the bureaucracy to apply pressure on vulnerable civic actors.
In Eastern Visayas (Region VIII), for example, a November briefing on EO No. 70 for journalists by the region’s task force involved having the media workers in attendance sign a Manifesto of Commitment.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) Eastern Visayas, described the manifesto as essentially “declaring [the signatories’] intent to devote themselves to the cause” of EO No. 70 and wonders if it isn’t a “blatant attempt to downgrade the role of the media.” The concerns are legitimate, especially given a marked change in the willingness of the local media to cover the activities of BAYAN and other progressive groups in the region at a time when many human rights violations arising from increased militarization need reporting.
That some media workers in Eastern Visayas feel compelled to publicly express their “commitment” to the aims of EO No. 70 is perhaps unsurprising, especially in light of the outright red-tagging of journalists elsewhere in the country.
In September, a forum at a state university in Pampanga had Rolando Asuncion, regional director of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), identifying journalist Sonia Soto as being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Speaking before students, faculty, and administration employees of Don Honorio Ventura State University, Asuncion claimed that Soto was among 31 persons in their list of journalists with communist ties. In a bulletin, NUJP points to a memorandum from the school’s executive vice president which described the event as “pursuant to the mandate of NICA in implementing Executive Order 70.”
Soto is the president and general manager of Central Luzon TV (CLTV 36), based in the city of San Fernando, Pampanga. As the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) notes, Soto is an “accredited broadcaster of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP)” and has headed CLTV 36 for 12 years. She has denied the accusation and has sought the assistance of the Commission on Human Rights.
In its 2019 South East Asia Media Freedom Report, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) described these incidents as means to “intimidate media from reporting on alleged abuses—especially human rights abuses—committed by State security forces.”
And then there are the cyberattacks. Since December 2018, a slew of independent media and human rights websites have experienced distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), where targeted websites are overwhelmed with visits resulting in the websites being taken down by their hosting providers. Among those targeted are the websites of Altermidya, Bulatlat, KARAPATAN, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Human Rights Online Philippines.
A March report by Qurium, an organization monitoring and protecting human rights and independent media organizations, outlined how these attacks were carried out. Their investigation identified an attacker based in the Philippines who was found to possess a spreadsheet file containing a list of targeted websites, most of which belong to organizations critical to the government.
PhilRights’ own website was not spared. A forensic investigation showed that on just one day in September, Philrights.org received 0ver 17 million requests from over 2,000 IP addresses, which are abnormally large numbers. The investigation concluded that the attacker/s employed an “HTTP flood attack” where multiple infected computers or other devices are coordinated to send multiple requests for images, files, or some other asset from a targeted server.
Funding and Regulatory Pressures
High-evel lobbying efforts by the Philippine government in 2019 has also led to increased pressure on foreign donors to scrutinize funding on Philippine NGOs critical of the government, among them KARAPATAN and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), both accused as funneling donor funds to communist rebels. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has also claimed ordering European embassies to inform their respective governments to “clear any and all donations to their NGOs in the Philippines” with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Compounding these pressures is Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Memorandum Circular No. 15, issued in 2018, which compels non-stock corporations, foundations and other non-profit organizations to disclose funding sources, information on programs and activities, beneficiaries, and project areas. The information gathered will then be used to conduct risk assessments, which can lead to labeling a non-profit according to their level of risk for money laundering and terrorist financing abuse.
One urgent question, which the SEC has not been able to properly address, is how all these sensitive data will be protected from abuse or misuse by the State, especially by the Security sector.
As non-profits were left with no choice but to comply or else risk a revocation of their SEC registration, Pacifico Agabin, former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law fears that the order creates a “chilling effect on political advocacies and political thought that is not in consonance to the policies of the administration.”
In 2019, that chilling effect has curdled into a bruised resistance. It’s there for each time Rappler’s Maria Ressa was arrested on questionable charges. It’s there when dozens of opposition figures—among them Vice President Leni Robredo, two sitting senators, two former senators, four Catholic bishops, and three priests—were charged with inciting to sedition, cyber libel, and obstruction of justice. It’s there when Senator Leila de Lima marked in November 1,000 days in detention on trumped up charges. And it’s there for each time a Filipino, fearing reprisal, is forced to stay silent in the face of State wrongdoing.