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Turning the tables on the President

THE HAGUE, the Netherlands — Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, interesting developments continue to unravel in the Philippine political landscape. Only recently, at least three arrests were made by the authorities, all in the same week in different parts of the country. The arrests shared a common narrative: The suspects allegedly offered a bounty through their social media posts for anyone who could kill President Duterte.

The first to be arrested was Ronnel Mas, a 25-year-old public school teacher. He was apprehended on May 11 in Zambales. His post on Twitter read: “I will give 50 Million reward kung sino makakapatay kay Duterte #NotoABSCBNShutDown.”

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On May 12, construction worker Ronald Quiboyen was arrested in Aklan. He allegedly wrote on his Facebook account that he was doubling the initial bounty: “yong 50 milyon nyo doblehin ko gawin kung 100 milyon kung sino makapatay kay duterte andito ako ngayon sa boracay…” (I will double your P50 million, I will make it P100 million for whoever can kill Duterte, I am now in Boracay…).

The next morning, May 13, Maria Catherine Ceron, a 26-year-old woman, was arrested in Cebu hours after she posted on her Facebook account a P75-million reward for a similar mission.

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All three are now facing charges of inciting to sedition in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Article 142 of the Revised Penal Code punishes any person who shall write, publish, or circulate scurrilous libel against the government, or that tend to stir up the people against lawful authorities. Further, all crimes penalized by the Revised Penal Code, if committed with the use of information and communications technology, fall within the ambit of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Critics of the Duterte administration denounced the arrests as an assault on free speech. Then again, even the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. Neither the Constitution nor international human rights law recognizes the advocacy of imminent lawless action as protected speech. So maybe this is not about free expression, but something more fundamental.

To clarify, the President is not the only recipient of these online death threats. Opposition figures, celebrities, and ordinary citizens have been at the receiving end of similarly vicious posts. Social media has proven to be a convenient platform for people not only to exchange political views, but also to trade insults. Many feel entitled to call someone out for being stupid, ugly, or, recently, bow-legged or sakang in Filipino.

Is this surprising? Perhaps not. After all, no less than the President delivers his speeches peppered with expletives, insults, and ad hominem attacks against perceived enemies. He once expressed his intention of establishing a revolutionary government, which meant repudiating the Constitution, the very same charter he swore to preserve and defend when he took his oath of office. Instead of enforcing the South China Sea award rendered by a reputable international tribunal, Mr. Duterte belittled its legal weight and chose to kowtow to China.

Respect for the rule of law may be the only thin line protecting society from the brink of anarchy and chaos. However, when the President himself feels empowered to abide by or violate the law at his whim, this only emboldens the people to do the same. Mr. Duterte used to offer huge bounties to those who could turn in drug lords, rogue cops, and communist rebels, dead or alive. Unfortunately for the President, the tables were turned on him.

This is what Philippine society is evolving into, and this has been the new normal even before the outbreak of the pandemic. As President Duterte promised during his campaign, change is coming — and now it’s here.

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Neil B. Nucup is a Filipino lawyer based in The Hague, the Netherlands, and a keen follower of Philippine current events.

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TAGS: Commentary, Neil B. Nucup, Rodrigo Duterte, rule of law
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