Proposed anti-terrorism law: Plague worse than COVID-19
It is easy to underestimate the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, as we underestimated COVID-19 when that infection was in its early stages. Just as COVID-19 at first seemed a problem only for people in Wuhan and those in contact with them, it is easy to think the Anti-Terrorism Act is a problem only for terrorists and those in contact with them. Why should we care if we are not terrorists and do not know terrorists?
The reasons we should care have been well articulated by other statements. One reason is an exceedingly loose definition of terrorism and terrorists. Another is that it awards the executive branch of government—specifically, the Anti-Terrorism Council, composed of certain members of the Cabinet and the security apparatus—the power to designate individuals and organizations as terrorists and freeze their assets, without a judicial process that allows contestation by the accused.
Yet another is that it potentially authorizes secret surveillance of private communications on no grounds more compelling than the assertion by a law enforcement or military agent that the persons to be put under surveillance are planning or engaged in acts of terrorism. While such surveillance requires a written order from the Court of Appeals, the courts have lately proven less than independent vis-à-vis executive intent. Still another reason is that if enacted into law, the bill would allow the arrest of suspects without a warrant and their detention for two weeks, with the possibility of a 10-day extension.
But the most important reason is the political context of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Even in ideal circumstances, with an executive branch clearly committed to human rights and the rule of law and a legislature and judiciary committed to maintain democratic checks and balances, the Anti-Terrorism Act would be cause for concern. It is even greater cause for concern under an administration that has used the law to pursue personal and political vendettas, as well as to suppress legitimate dissent and to award to the forces of coercion a major role in the administration of the nation. It is even greater cause for concern with a legislature and a judiciary that have largely served as lackeys to the executive.
The Anti-Terrorism Act is not the virus. It is only one symptom of a plague worse than COVID-19—a plague that will undermine our nation for generations, as did its earlier strain, the Marcos dictatorship. The real virus is an authoritarian agenda that attacks democracy and transmutes it beyond recognition.
It is no accident that the Anti-Terrorism Act has been rushed into law while the nation is immobilized by the fear of contagion and by the economic damage caused by the quarantine. Under such circumstances, citizens are less likely to push back.
But just as we have used communications technology to maintain relationships and productivity and the flow of information despite physical distancing, we can use it to resist. As former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio advises us, the Anti-Terrorism Act can still be challenged in the courts. And even if the Supreme Court has time and again caved shamefully to the expansion of executive power under the Duterte administration, its justices have occasionally been known to uphold constitutional principles if the public outcry is loud enough.
We can still defeat this plague. There is already a vaccine. The vaccine is an engaged citizenry that cares about democracy. The vaccine is us.
MEMBERS OF GOMBURZA: SISTER TERESITA ALO, SFIC; FR. ROBERTO REYES; FR. JOSELITO SARABIA, CM; FR. FLAVIE L. VILLANUEVA, SVD; LOT LUMAWIG ALLANIGUE; TERESITA S. CASTILLO; LUCIA LUCAS CHAVEZ; PERCIVAL CHAVEZ; ELEANOR R. DIONISIO; VERONICA ESTER MENDOZA; ANGELO SILVA