On Wednesday last week, it was former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro and 16 teachers, congressional staffers and pastors. On Monday, it was news website Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa.
The latest wave of arrests against vocal government critics paints a disturbing pattern of a crackdown on dissent under the Duterte administration.
Ocampo, Castro and 16 others were arrested by police in a checkpoint in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, on the evening of Nov. 28.
By all accounts, Ocampo’s group was part of a solidarity mission that responded to a distressed call from teachers in an indigenous “lumad” school in Barangay Palma Gil.
The teachers reported that the 56th Infantry Brigade of the military and the paramilitary group Alamara had imposed a food blockade and closed the Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center (STTICLC) schools, which they accused of being fronts of the New People’s Army.
Fearing for their safety, the teachers fled with their students until they met up with Ocampo’s group.
On their way to Tagum, the convoy was flagged down close to midnight and the rescuers and teachers, including 14 children, were held at the police jail.
It was not until noon of the following day that the group — which included Ocampo, Castro and two of her staffers, the executive director and nine teachers of the STTICLC, and four pastors of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and the United Methodist Church in Davao — was informed of the charges against them.
They were released on P80,000 bail for each person two days after the arrest.
Kidnapping and human trafficking — accusations that raised many eyebrows and even laughter for their sheer incongruity with the circumstances that brought Ocampo and company to the area.
That the police are only now receiving supposed complaints from parents of some of the children betrays the haste with which the authorities moved to pin down the group.
A notable member of the Duterte Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr., called the charges against Ocampo “bullsh*t,” while Sen. Francis Escudero said the charges were “hard to believe and preposterous.”
Even Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, under whose presidential administration some cases were filed against Ocampo, said he and Castro deserved “a certain level of dignified and respectful treatment.” (Ocampo is 79; following the police’s Imelda Marcos logic, shouldn’t his age and health have been taken into consideration, too?)
It begs asking if the charges brought upon Ocampo and other critics is part of a bigger witch hunt by an administration that has shown aggressive intolerance to criticism.
In Ressa’s case, the enmity of the President toward her and her organization has been undisguised and sustained.
In February, Rappler was banned from covering the President; in March, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s operating license for supposedly violating foreign ownership rules, followed by the filing of tax evasion charges by the Bureau of Internal Revenue; and in October, the Department of Justice issued its indictment.
The same weekend as Ocampo et al.’s arrest, a warrant of arrest was issued against Ressa. Ressa preempted her arrest by presenting herself to the judge on Monday to post bail.
Ocampo and Ressa are but the latest names in a seemingly politically motivated campaign of retaliation that started with the arrest of Sen. Leila de Lima, the ouster of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, the cases filed against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, and the regular shaming of churchmen, human rights advocates, activists, media owners and practitioners, and other perceived thorns on the side of the President.
In a healthy democracy, legitimate and peaceful dissenting voices are essential to debating government policies and scrutinizing the actions of people in power, for the common good of the people in whose name such governance is being carried out.
Absent that space, or the necessary questioning of the burgeoning environment of repression, what may follow is the country’s unstoppable tailspin back to its dark days: midnight arrests of critics and clear-as-day assaults on a free press.
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