HRW slams Philippine move to block websites over alleged communist links

Dennis Jay Santos and Froilan Gallardo
2022.06.22
Davao, Philippines
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HRW slams Philippine move to block websites over alleged communist links Philippines National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon (right) and other government officials inspect high-powered firearms and ammunition seized from Islamist militants in Marawi city, Philippines, June 8, 2017.
Reuters

The Philippine national security adviser’s letter seeking to block more than two dozen websites, including independent alternative media, for alleged links to communist insurgents is “brazen” censorship, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

In a June 6 letter released Wednesday, Hermogenes Esperon, the outgoing top security official, asked the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) to ban 27 websites.

These sites, including the domain of Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and Bulatlat, a leading progressive news website, were deemed “affiliated to and are supporting these terrorists and terrorist organizations,” Esperon said in the letter. 

 “They have established a pervasive online presence through their website that they continually use to publish propaganda and misinformation campaigns in order to malign the Philippine government, recruit new members, and solicit funds from local and international sources,” Esperon alleged.

The NTC and the Department of Justice did not respond to BenarNews’ requests for comment. In a June 8 memorandum, the NTC ordered the websites blocked, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, described the move as another dimension in the government’s efforts to harass journalists and activists.

“This is nothing less than a brazen attempt to undermine them and censor these media outlets and groups,” he said in a statement. “What’s astonishing is how easily the government escalates its defamatory rhetoric, moving from red-tagging them to classifying them as terrorists, in effect terrorist-tagging them.”

“Red-tagging” is a practice among Philippine military and police personnel of accusing individual people or groups of being communist rebels or sympathizers, rights activists allege.

Following the release of the letter, Esperon issued a statement explaining his call for the websites to be blocked.

“Misinformation remains … one of the nation’s greatest enemies; and is in fact a powerful tool used by the Communist Terrorist Group to sow enmity and discord – dividing the Filipino people and separating us from objectivity and the truth,” Esperon said in the Wednesday statement.

“To call our act of protecting the integrity of our nation’s digital space as an act of ‘desperation,’ or a ‘blatant attack on free speech,’ reeks of desperation because they not only are unable to counter these arguments through any respectable means, but they are actively pursuing acts of terrorism within their respective organizations.”

‘Hearsay’

One of the organizations on the list, Bulatlat, tweeted on Wednesday that subscribers could not access its website. The online news portal critical of the Duterte administration could be accessed in other countries.

“This is prior restraint against protected speech. It is downright unacceptable as it is based on Esperon’s mere hearsay,” Bulatlat said in a statement.

“We raise the alarm that such arbitrary action sets a dangerous precedent for independent journalism in the Philippines,” it said, asking readers, fellow journalists and the public “to stand against attempts to muzzle legitimate sources of information.”

Bulatlat editors said they have been repeatedly and unfairly labeled as communist sympathizers and subjected to cyber attacks.

Esperon had also asked the websites of left-leaning civic-political organization Bayan Muna be taken down. Its secretary-general, Renato Reyes, urged telecommunications firms to “reject these illegal and baseless orders from the NTC and National Security Council.”

“The next national security adviser is also urged to revoke these illegal orders and to cease attacks on free speech and freedom of association,” Reyes told reporters.

For his part, Esperon said restricting access to these websites does not “necessarily mean a restriction for these organizations to engage in free speech.

“Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly and other websites stated in our letter to NTC are free to continue publishing articles and editorial pieces that fit their messaging lines, but they will not be accessible to internet users in this country.”

Long-running insurgency

The CPP’s military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), has been fighting with the Philippine government since 1969. Tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict, Asia’s longest-running active insurgency.

Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described leftist and a former university student of CPP co-founder Sison, has targeted the communists since 2017 after peace talks aimed at ending the rebellion failed.

The Duterte administration declared the CPP and NPA terrorist organizations in 2020 and added their political wing, the National Democratic Front, to that list last year.

In his letter, Esperon cited the resolutions that designated the CPP and its wings as terrorist organizations to justify his appeal to the NTC.

In July 2020, the government passed the Anti-Terror Act, an update to an earlier measure that the country’s security establishment criticized as weak in catching and prosecuting terror suspects. The act allows the government to arrest suspected terrorists without a warrant and detain them without charges for up to 24 days.

About six months later, Tetch Torres-Tupas, a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was accused by a military general of being a propagandist for communist rebels after she reported on a petition by two members of an Aeta tribe against the act. She eventually was cleared by military officials.

Duterte has been at odds with journalists for reporting on his administration’s drug war, which has killed thousands since he took office in 2016.

His legislative allies shut down the free channel of national broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp., while the head of online news site Rappler, Maria Ressa, was convicted of cyber libel. Ressa went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize with a Russian journalist.

After six years, Duterte will hand the reins of government on June 30 to President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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