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After Hong Kong, Could the Philippines Be the Next to See a Law Against Government Critics?

A controversial anti-terror bill in the Philippines has been on President Rodrigo Duterte’s desk since mid-June, awaiting a signature.

Duterte certified the bill as urgent, which allowed it to speed through Congress—mostly made up of his allies—but he has yet to sign or veto the bill. In the Philippines, however, a proposed law submitted by Congress will lapse into law after 30 days of receipt if it is not acted on by the president.

The bill saw widespread backlash in the country after human rights activists decried it as a potential tool of repression by the government, with those concerns resurfacing after the passing of Hong Kong’s similarly problematic national security law early this week.

Sarah Elago, a 30-year-old legislator and representative of the Kabataan Partylist, which represents Philippine youth, said the looming anti-terror law in the country is as “draconian” as the Beijing-drafted national security law in Hong Kong.

Other netizens in the Philippines echoed the same comparison, and expressed their concerns about how the law could similarly curtail democratic freedoms.

“Just because the [bill’s] title sounds good doesn’t mean the content is too,” one Twitter user noted.

Another pointed to the vague wording of Hong Kong’s legislation, noting that “even when those authorities ‘promised’ it’ll be used properly, it still [led] to the arrest of hundreds of protesters” at anti-security law demonstrations on Wednesday.

“Imagine that with out Anti-Terror bill,” they added.

One Twitter user even flatly accused Duterte of “imitating China.”

Richard Heydarian, a political scientist who has studied China and democracies in Southeast Asia, told VICE News that the concerns and comparison are “absolutely” valid, “considering how close Duterte is to China, how much he admires their political system, and how beleaguered the democracies’ opposition is in both Manila and Hong Kong.”

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“In both timing and content, the Hong Kong national security law and Duterte’s anti-terror bill present a clear and present danger to democratic forces. Through their perilously vague definition of ‘subversion’ and ‘terrorism,’ these draconian legislations provide, especially under persisting lockdowns, maximum leeway for autocratic consolidation,” he said. “If anything, it seems what we are also witnessing is an ‘authoritarian learning,’ as despots across the region pick from each other’s anti-democratic playbook.”

Heydarian added that the timing of both laws is suspect, coming as it does on the back of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Without a question, the pandemic has ushered in a troubling authoritarian blitzkrieg across the world, especially in beleaguered democracies such as the Philippines. While it has exposed the hollowness of right-wing populism, given the almost universal failure of strongmen populists across the world, the pandemic has also provided a perfect pretext for muzzling opposition and silencing voices of dissent,” he said.

Philippine Congressman Ruffy Biazon also noted the questionable timing of the passage of both measures, particularly “during a time that all countries are occupied with dealing with a serious pandemic.”

Biazon, one of the principal authors of the anti-terror bill in the legislature’s lower chamber, surprisingly voted against the bill’s passage a day after defending it in Congress because the House of Representatives was not allowed to make amendments to the Senate’s version of the bill. Despite his withdrawal of support, he does not think that the Hong Kong security law has the same purpose as the Philippine’s proposed anti-terror law.

“The Hong Kong law… is meant to enforce political fidelity to the [Chinese] State while the Philippine law is meant to counter the threat of terrorism to the Nation, meaning the Filipino people and their way of life,” he told VICE News.

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“While the opposition to the Anti-Terror Bill raise their concerns about possible abuse and stifling of dissent and activism, the proponents of the law have clearly spelled out the legislative intent behind the bill.”

He agreed that some provisions “can still be tweaked to make the intent, objective, and meaning more explicit,” but said that the purpose of the measure “has always been clear—that of capturing, prosecuting, punishing perpetrators of terrorism and ultimately preventing the occurrence of the same.”

The sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, mandated by Beijing and passed in record time, forbids acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, with sentences ranging up to life in prison. China has said the law is needed after the pro-democracy protest movement that rocked the city last year, with many of the tactics employed now illegal under the new law. Activists, however, say the new law erodes freedoms, and is an attempt by China to stifle dissent.

Indeed, within a day of the law being passed by China’s rubber stamp legislature, political groups began disbanding, dissidents fled, and protesters were arrested across the city for alleged crimes as trivial as having offending slogans on their flags.

In the Philippines, concerns around the proposed law, officially named the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, revolve around its vague definition of a terrorist. Critics argue it gives the government more power to conduct surveillance and arrests, and proposes tougher punishments for suspects.

Lawmakers who supported the bill, however, shrugged off concerns that the new law could be weaponized, saying the new bill is needed to strengthen the country’s fight against terrorism. The new bill is especially concerning for activists due to what they consider to be Duterte’s history of harassing critics.

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Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has threatened journalists, politicians, religious leaders, and activists who have spoken out against his policies, especially when it comes to the deadly drug war.

Even without the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the Philippine government recently shut down ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest news network, a company Duterte repeatedly admitted to having a personal grudge against. Veteran journalist Maria Ressa was also recently convicted of cyberlibel, in a move that press freedom activists decried as politically motivated.

But Biazon pointed out that essentially, the difference between the two laws lies in the fact that Filipinos can still “question the validity of the Anti-Terrorism bill if it becomes a law” under the Philippine Constitution.

“It is undeniable that with the presence of progressive parties, cause-oriented groups, and other political personalities who pursue a civil-liberties agenda in the Legislature, there is always a way for government to be tempered or even checked in the implementation of laws,” he said.

Critics have vowed to do just that before the Supreme Court, but even then, they question the impartiality of the judiciary under Duterte’s leadership.

The approved Anti-Terrorism Bill follows other recent policies of Duterte’s administration that have raised concerns over human rights violations, such as strict curfews under coronavirus quarantine, warrantless arrests for lockdown violators, and the granting of special powers to the president to handle the pandemic, a situation some now call a “de facto martial law.” Government critics who posted their dissatisfaction with the administration have also been charged with sedition.

Since becoming President, Duterte has also received global condemnation for his drug war that has left tens of thousands of people dead in extrajudicial executions at the hands of the police.

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