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We asked a lawyer all your questions about the Anti-Terrorism Act

Gabbi Garcia and Khalil Ramos for Scout x Globe

On Friday, July 3, the Anti-Terrorism Bill (now Republic Act No. 11479) was signed into law by President Duterte, just days before it would have lapsed into law. With a torrent of vocal dissent seen in the weeks-long #JunkTerrorBill campaign, the decision was met with the same opposition from concerned internet users, certain lawmakers as well as activist groups and artists.

The law will take effect 15 days after its publication in the Official Gazette and for most vocal citizens, the future is filled with unease. With Hong Kong recently subjected to a new national security law, some can’t help but reflect how this could mirror what the Philippines is about to face.

According to the new act, authorities can tag a person a terrorist if they are threatening (Sec. 5), conspiring (Sec. 7), inciting without any direct part in the commission of terrorism (Sec. 9) or joining (Sec. 10) and being an accessory without having participated in terrorist groups (Sec. 14).

One cause for concern is the loose definition of “terrorism” and how vague provisions of the law may lead to its abuse. Enforcers and their interpretation of the law are the cruxes of the issue, especially considering those who will be directly affected by this.

“You know we should all worry for the poor and powerless—the Indigenous peoples in remote areas caught in the crossfire between government and rebels, or whose communities are being threatened by corporate interests,” says Atty. Romel Bagares, professor of international law at the Lyceum Philippines University College of Law and former executive director of Centerlaw. “They will bear the brunt of this draconian imposition. Which is why it is important that those who have the means should speak up for them.”

As the countdown begins to tick, questions continue to mount. We asked Atty. Bagares about what the Anti-Terrorism Act could mean for those unafraid to speak up in a time when threats may loom near.

Any sound advice for people who are vocal about expressing dissent online?

Avoid posting or liking posts advocating violence against the government, government officials, facilities or people. But criticizing the government for being inept, corrupt or a violator of rights is not terrorism.

Is liking or sharing acritical social media post enough grounds to spark suspicion from those who would implement the law?

This isn’t going to be libelous under the cybercrime law (no intermediary liability) but with the kind of law enforcers we have, such sharing or liking can be construed as aiding or abetting terrorism. Be very afraid, but be very courageous too.

Do rules of retroactivity apply here?

That’s the thing—online posts are there. It’s forever. In Thailand, posts made before a junta took over the government were used to prosecute people after the fact.
I actually worked in the case of one Thai blogger in proceedings before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He was jailed for blog posts made before martial law was declared. In Thailand, the junta removed the right to appeal to cases involving political offenses in the constitution. These cases were usually tried by military tribunals and not by regular courts, at least at that time. In 2019, the junta was dissolved to pave the way for a new cabinet still headed by a general. All cases under military tribunals were transferred to civilian courts.

Rappler was prosecuted under cyber libel after the fact. Law enforcement is fond of saying, “Well, that’s a continuing crime since it’s still there.”

Is the government response to terrorism (that is, the Anti-Terrorism Act) more serious than the terrorists?

There are problematic provisions in the law (and misleading claims made by its supporters). Even more problematic is the kind of law enforcement we have today, where abuses have been enabled and empowered by the kind of leadership we have today.

It can be argued that there are similarities between our Anti-Terrorism Act and Hong Kong’s national security law. Even a 15-year-old girl was arrested for waving a Hong Kong independence flag. Could this be an inkling of what’s to come here?

To be fair, the law does provide some safeguards (which you will not find in the HK security law). But these safeguards are nothing where the prevalent mentality among law enforcers, it seems, is “violate first, justify later.” Under the first Human Security Act, the penalty for violations of rights involved stiff fines, and yet these did not prevent police from violating the rights of Edgar Candule, an Aeta tribesperson whom they accused of being an NPA terrorist. He was eventually found innocent of the charges after a long period of incarceration, which, under the law, would have meant fines reaching nearly half a billion pesos. The government refuses to pay the fines or acknowledge wrongdoing. The fines are no longer there in the amended law.

Can activists still conduct protests under this law given the spate of recent arrests? Or would you say, there’s still a lot of uncertainty up in the air on its implementation?

This law can apply to you even if you’re abroad tweeting about the Philippines in a manner deemed subject to the law by the Anti-Terrorism Council. This is an extraordinary feature with a broad chilling effect.

Read more:
The Anti-Terrorism Law as told by our lawmakers, activists and artists
It’s not the end of junking the Anti-Terror Act. Legislators can still amend it
Duterte has signed the anti-terrorism law—what do we do now?

Art by Jenny Masangkay

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