This website requires JavaScript.

Only 10 Allowed? No ‘Freedom’ To Hold Outdoor Protests On Independence Day, But Rallies Are Set

Only 10 Allowed? No ‘Freedom’ To Hold Outdoor Protests On Independence Day, But Rallies Are Set
Workers erect a heart-shaped arc covered with the colors of the Philippine flag in Rizal Park in Manila on Thursday, June 11, 2020 in time for the 122nd Independence Day celebration today, June 12. Photo by Edd Gumban, The Philippine STAR

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is temporarily banning Independence Day protests today, June 12, citing the risks of spreading the coronavirus disease 2019 that the government is trying to stop with quarantine measures.

The DOJ threatens to impose  penalties on violators even as the National Union of People’s Lawyers questioned the existence of any law containing such a prohibition.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also acknowledged that rallies can be done with caution.

Groups critical of the loose and vague provisions of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act –dubbed by Sen. Francis Pangilinan as a show of force by “all political colors” – are scheduled to hold a “grand mañanita” at the University of the Philippines Diliman today, June 12, at 9 a.m.

 The party mode is a jab at National Capital Region Police Office chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, who celebrated his birthday with around 50 other people in the middle of the enhanced community quarantine on May 8. Charges were filed against Sinas, but these have not reached the courts. He also got to keep his position.

 At the same time, the groups call on participants to observe social or physical distancing guidelines and wear protective gear. “Don’t party like Debold. Party responsibly” is the common tagline of participating groups like the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

 For people who cannot go in person, Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND) calls for cash donations. “Sa ’yo ang pagkain, sa ’yo ang inumin! Transpo, masks at alcohol na rin” goes the tagline that paraphrased a popular birthday chant.

 Behind the moniker is the idea that arresting people who participate in the “mañanita” will expose the apparent double standard in the implementation of quarantine measures, such as in the case of Sinas.

 There are protest actions set and those who cannot join physically are encouraged to do whatever they can to show opposition to the anti-terrorism bill.

 Despite this contrast, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Archie Francisco Gamboa on June 11 said the PNP “will strictly enforce the prohibition on any form of mass gathering during the celebration of the 122nd Araw ng Kalayaan.”

 On June 9, presidential spokesman Harry Roque reminded the public against mass gatherings of more than 10 people in areas under general community quarantine, in accordance with the guidelines released by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to beat COVID-19.

 “I don’t know anything about this mañanita, but gatherings of 10 people or more is prohibited. That is all,” Roque said in Filipino.

 Roque also said earlier that the rallies could be held online just like on Labor Day, May 1.

 ‘Protest ban to avoid direct transmission’

 DOJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s statement on the eve of Independence Day was the most explicit and specific in prohibiting rallies although the PNP also gave out the same warning.

 “Solely for public health reasons and nothing else, mass gatherings, including protest rallies, are temporarily banned to avoid direct transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” Guevarra said.

 He added that “violations may give rise to penal sanctions under existing public health laws, not under criminal laws.” However, he did not specify which public health laws might be violated in case of mass gatherings.

 Guevarra on March 16 mentioned the act of “non-cooperation” under Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Concern Act. The law did not define the term “non-cooperation,” giving authorities leeway to use it against curfew violators or people who go outside without quarantine passes.

 In an order that does not bind other courts, Norzagaray, Bulacan Municipal Trial Court Judge Julie Rita Suarez-Badillo dismissed such a case against former Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao and six other members. Her interpretation was that Section 9(d) of RA 11332 concerned the disclosure of contagious infections, not violations of lockdown measures.

 The other offense Guevarra cited in March was disobedience to persons in authority under Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code. In cases like that of the Sitio San Roque residents – who claimed to have gathered on April 1 after being misled that food would finally be distributed – the police filed a complaint against them for allegedly spreading false information and impeding access to roads under Section 6 of RA 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. The residents were also accused of unlawful assembly under Batas Pambansa Bilang 880.

 No law against protests

 None of these laws explicitly tackle the holding of protest actions during an ongoing pandemic, not even the “standby powers” law that was rushed in response to the onset of COVID-19.

 This led National Union of People’s Lawyers president Edre Olalia to conclude: “It is legal to join a peaceful protest during quarantine. There is no law prohibiting rallies (even) during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 “They do not have provisions allowing arrests simply on alleged violation of ‘mass gathering or quarantine rules,’ ” Olalia said.

 He interpreted “non-cooperation” under RA 11332 as applicable only to persons who were previously identified as having a “notifiable disease” or being “affected” by it.

 “Persons who have not been identified as having COVID disease cannot therefore be arrested under this provision,” he argued.

 “Mass gatherings” are prohibited more expressly under the rules of the IATF and the executive orders on the community quarantine – neither of which are criminal laws.

 Roque said the NUPL was “wrong” because ordinances at the local government unit level impose penalties on people who do not observe social distancing.

 So hindi lang naman po batas iyan, mayroon din pong mga ordinansa. In fact, pati po iyong curfew, ordinansa po iyan at equally binding and enforceable by the police ang ordinances. Mali po kayo (It is not just the law, there are also ordinances. In fact, even curfews are ordinances and are equally binding and enforceable by the police. You are wrong),” Roque said.

 But Olalia pointed out that in Quezon City, where UP Diliman is located, there were only guidelines “pegged on the inapplicable RA 11332.” He said: “The water cannot rise above the source.”

 CONTEND harped on the same points and stressed: “Our civil and political rights are not suspended. We need to assert that.”

 Safety guidelines to be observed

 Asked if NUPL and other groups would still go out despite the threat of arrest, Olalia said: “The people cannot be muzzled and put in an internet bivouac alone to express themselves. Even the WHO recognizes the importance of the exercise of these rights as long as the necessary health safety practices are observed.”

 Filipinos are not the only ones up in arms over government abuses in the middle of a pandemic. Protests are raging in the United States against the systemic targeting of black men, the use of excessive force and other abuses by the police.

 The US currently has the world’s highest number of COVID infections with 2.04 million as of June 11 and deaths at 115,000.

 Unlike Philippine authorities, the WHO has been more understanding of the right of the people to protest injustice greater than the risks to personal safety. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on June 8 even said the institution “fully supports equality and the global movement against racism.”

 Ghebreyesus said “we encourage all those protesting around the world to do so safely.”

 “As much as possible, keep at least one meter from others, clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest. We remind all people to stay home if you are sick and contact a health care provider,” he said.

 In any case, it is up to the government to “strengthen the fundamental public health measures that remain the basis of the response: find, isolate, test and care for every case, and trace and quarantine every contact,” according to the WHO chief, who has been under fire from certain governments for the global pandemic response and his alleged bias for China where the coronavirus originated.

 The “mañanita” event will not be the first mass demonstration to be held during the quarantine. Militant groups and student organizations held rallies at UP Diliman last week to demand the scrapping of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act. Rally organizers claimed the participants complied with health and social distancing measures.

 The following day, a mass demonstration also against the anti-terrorism bill was held in UP Cebu – an event that ended with the arrest of four members of militant groups, three students and a bystander. The UP Cebu administration has said it was “deeply disturbed” by the dispersal of the protesters and has criticized the police for its supposed failure to coordinate with school officials. Police said the rally participants had violated the ban on public gatherings.

 Six jeepney drivers, some of whom are senior citizens, were also arrested on June 2 and charged with simple resistance and disobedience to authority or violation of Article 151of the Revised Penal Code. The so-called “PISTON 6” – being members of the transport group Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide – were among those who held a “Balik Pasada” protest in Caloocan City. They were released by the Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 52 after posting bail.

 Double standard?

 President Duterte in his May 19 speech warned officials against misusing cash assistance funds, saying: “So the law is the law is the law… When you begin to mess up with the law, talagang ginagarantiya ko sa inyo na makukulong talaga kayo (I really guarantee that you will be jailed).”

 Under the same breath, he refused to dismiss Sinas from his position for the breach of quarantine protocols. He said: “Sabi mo, ‘the law is the law.’ Well, akin na iyon (You say, ‘the law is the law.’ Well that is on me). It’s my responsibility. But I will not order his transfer. He stays there until further orders.”

 Sinas and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III currently face preliminary investigation for violation of RA 11332 after the PNP Internal Affairs Service and lawyer Rico Quicho, respectively, filed criminal complaints against them. Both were not arrested on the spot like ordinary people, because their alleged breaches were not found out right away.

 Pimentel joined his then-pregnant wife at the Makati Medical Center delivery room, saying he was informed about his being positive for COVID-19 when he was already there.

 Other public officials who faced controversy were Overseas Workers Welfare Administration deputy administrator Mocha Uson, who visited some 300 returning migrant workers quarantined in Batangas, and San Juan City Mayor Francis Zamora, who claimed to be asleep when his police-escorted convoy ignored the checkpoints of Baguio City. Mayor Timoteo Villar III of Santo Tomas, Pangasinan was filmed without a face mask, shaking the hands of those who attended his midnight “harana.” The police chief of Santo Tomas, Capt. Peter Paul Sison, who gave Villar a birthday cake during the mañanita, was sacked by the PNP.

 Go to court

 Groups opposed to the anti-terrorism bill are free to question it before the court even after it is signed into law,  Roque said on Thursday, June 11.

 Various sectors have urged Duterte to reject the measure, saying it can be weaponized against critics of the government and contains an unclear definition of “terrorism” that is prone to human rights violations.

 Among the groups that have criticized the bill is the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the mandatory group of Filipino lawyers, which questioned the provisions creating the Anti-Terrorism Council and permitting the detention of suspected terrorists for 14 to 24 days without judicially charging them.

 The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines – Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities has also voiced its opposition to the anti-terror bill, saying it contains provisions that are “reprehensive” to the rights of citizens. Various academic institutions and cause-oriented groups also fear that the measure would be used to stifle free expression.

 Proponents of the bill have pointed to Western democracies with similar preventative or pre-trial detention measures: 14 days in Australia, up to 28 days in the UK, 13 days in Spain and indefinitely in the US. France allows pre-trial detention of terror suspects for up to four years. The Netherlands, where Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairman Jose Maria Sison is in self-exile, allows the confiscation and revocation of travel documents as well as mobility restrictions for up to six months, with extension, of a person merely suspected of intending to join an organization that poses a threat to national security.

 Roque said it would be too early to react to calls for the President to veto the bill. But critics, the Palace spokesman said, may still ask the court to stop the implementation of the measure.

 “The truth is, once it becomes a law, they (critics of the bill) can still file cases because our judiciary is functioning. If there is a provision that violates the Constitution, it would be declared unconstitutional,” Roque said.

 Roque cited the case of David versus Arroyo, wherein an act of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was declared unconstitutional because there was no definition of terrorism at the time.

 “The difference is terrorism now has a definition not just in the Philippines but also in the UN (United Nations) system. So it is very hard to win just like what happened to us during the David vs. Arroyo case,” he said.

 The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act, which was certified as urgent by the President, was transmitted to Malacañang for Duterte’s signature last Tuesday. Officials previously said the President’s legal team would conduct a final review of the measure before submitting it to him.

 Roque reiterated that the bill has enough safeguards against human rights violations. With regard to the provision allowing the detention of suspected terrorists, Roque said law enforcers have to inform the nearest judge that they have apprehended a suspect and file the correspondent charges.

 “If the arrest is malicious, there is a corresponding imprisonment that lasts for up to 10 years,” Roque said.

 Roque said that Duterte’s decision on the bill would be “guided by what is best for the country.” – With Alexis Romero