Big talk, big mistake
Too bad the new Armed Forces chief of staff began his brief — six months — term of office with what Sen. Panfilo Lacson later described as an “ill-advised” statement. At his first press briefing as military chief, Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said provisions on the regulation of the use of social media should be included in the implementing rules and regulations (IRRs) of the Anti-Terrorism Act. It expectedly drew heavy flak, so that days later the multi-awarded and -decorated officer was compelled to say: “What I meant by that is to regulate and put order on the social media platforms, not the users per se.”
It’s uncertain if Gapay, by his initial statement, intended to stick his toe in the waters of public opinion to test the temperature or merely opened his mouth to put his foot in. (As Inquirer columnist Ramon Farolan Jr., himself a former military man, wryly commented on the matter, “An old proverb comes to mind: ‘Big talk, big mistake, small talk, small mistake, no talk, no mistake.’”) Whatever, Gapay’s gaffe dragged attention away from his other plans of action for the Philippine military (nothing new, to be sure, but doubly urgent in this day and age): enhanced intelligence-sharing among local and foreign security forces, close monitoring of maritime security to foil foreign terrorists from taking advantage of the country’s porous borders, and management of public access to information on how to make IEDs or improvised explosive devices.
By his statement, the valedictorian of the Philippine Military Academy’s Sinagtala Class of 1986 behaved as though unaware of the continuing dissent to the anti-terrorism law that was enacted on July 3 from out of the blue as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and took effect on July 18, and the IRRs for which are still being drafted. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and legislators championing the law were quick to disavow support for his proposal, as were other officials and concerned citizens ardently voicing opposition to the measure as it stands.
Lorenzana, who, as head of the Department of National Defense, is part of the panel drafting the IRRs, dismissed the very idea: “No, the [anti-terrorism law] should not regulate social media. It is not a part of its mandate and it would violate freedom of speech and discourse,” he said in a text message to reporters when asked to comment.
Gapay’s timing was also off, rocking the boat when government forces needed more than ever to win hearts and minds. Surely he was aware of the unnecessary public agitation stirred by the state over the arrest and prosecution of a public school teacher — thankfully acquitted — who had jokingly offered a bounty for the killing of the President, or a minor official’s attempted deportation of a Filipino worker in Taiwan who had criticized the government’s response to the pandemic, or the harassment, veiled or overt, of those who speak their mind about the administration and post less than praise online.
Or the confiscation by Bulacan police on July 26 of copies of Pinoy Weekly, a print and online news magazine that runs reports and opinions on as well as photographs of Filipinos living on the margins: It depicted state forces’ combative stance vis-à-vis those who cast a cold eye on impoverishment and its roots and work to lift the poor from the bondage of ignorance. Tellingly, the police could not explain the raid beyond the claim that the news magazine registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission as a nonprofit was “bawal” — illegal — because it supposedly teaches Filipinos to fight the government.
All these and more provide the context of why Gapay’s desired regulation of social media rankled among Filipinos resisting the stilling of their voice. Even the legislators who pushed for the anti-terrorism law, such as Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, took note that Gapay didn’t see in his proposal a violation of the 1987 Charter and a confirmation of public fears that the measure would be used to crack down on government critics.
Surely Gapay sees the wisdom of working with, and not against, the people before retiring from fruitful military service in February 2021. Perhaps he can deepen his awareness of realities by studying the petitions filed at the Supreme Court — 27 at this writing — against the Anti-Terrorism Act by, among others, a “lumad” school, rights advocates, congressmen from Mindanao, journalists, and such lawyers as former senator Rene Saguisag and former mayor Jojo Binay.
One petition, filed by former Supreme Court associate justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales and UP College of Law faculty and students, delivers the message simply: The anti-terrorism law “chills free speech, brazenly violates the principle of the separation of powers, and grants the executive branch powers beyond what the Constitution permits.”
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