Esperon uses anti-terror law to block websites including news site


MANILA, Philippines, June 23 ------ Outgoing National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. managed to get the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to block access to 28 websites, including leading alternative news site Bulatlat.


Esperon wrote NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba on June 6 requesting the commission to “order Philippine Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to the following websites affiliated to and are supporting these terrorists and terrorist organizations”. Esperon did not provide any basis except to attach previous resolutions of the anti-terror council designating as terrorists the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), and the National Democratic Front (NDF). Designation is a unique power under the law to designate a person or a group as a terrorist based only on the council’s own determination without having to go to court, or without even notifying parties or holding hearings. As of writing, Bulatlat.com is not accessible. A mirror site Bulatlat.org can be accessed. Bulatlat is an established news group that focuses on issues of marginalized groups. “Bulatlat condemns this brazen violation of our right to publish, and of the public’s right to free press and free expression. Since June 17, our subscribers using Smart/PLDT as their ISP informed us that they cannot access our website, prompting us to reach out to the IT company to inquire about the incident,” said Bulatlat in a statement.


Another website covered by Esperon’s request is that of veteran progressive group Bayan. Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said they “urge telcos 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,” said Reyes. Other groups whose websites were blocked, even though they were not designated by the anti-terror council, are fisherfolk group Pamalakaya, Save our Schools Network which supports alternative schools for the Lumad, and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, a church-based national organization composed of priests and lay persons that describes itself as a group that “empowers farmers, fisher-folk and indigenous peoples, and educates them on their rights.” “Majority of our website content are updates on the plight and struggles of Filipino fishers in the West Philippine Sea. Esperon lobbying to have our website blocked is an admission of guilt that the security cluster, that is mandated to secure our sovereignty, has been inutile to do so,” said Pamalaya in a statement. The Department of Justice (DOJ), which crafted the implementing rules of the anti-terror law, sidestepped questions on whether the law or the rules allow Esperon’s actions.


In earlier interviews, Justice Undersecretary Adrian Sugay said that the only effect of designation is the freezing of assets. That was his response to concerns expressed in the past that designation could go beyond what is stated in the law. Responding to a flurry of questions, Sugay kept sending the exact provision in the rules and kept saying, “Our position on the matter of the effects of designation has always been very clear,” without being categorical. Pressed on it some more, Sugay said: “These questions, in my opinion, should be directed to the National Security Council. Please note that the request in question emanated not from the Anti-Terrorism Council, but from the National Security Council.” The DOJ is a member of the anti-terrorism council, while Esperon is vice chairperson. Asked if Esperon’s action did not go through the anti-terror council, or even a consultation with the DOJ, Sugay said, “Maybe you should be directing your questions to the NSC.” “If anybody should feel aggrieved by any perceived improper use or application of any provisions of the anti-terror act, including the provisions in designation, there are remedies under the law and judicial recourse is always available,” said the DOJ official.


The Supreme Court has upheld with finality almost all the parts of the disputed law, including the mode of local designation. But the Supreme Court also said in its ruling that more challenges can be filed by directly injured parties. “The Court must emphasize this holding does not, will not, and should not preclude subsequent challenges by individuals or groups who may in the future, eventually come before this Court once again to assail the constitutionality of the unresolved provisions in the law,” the Court said in its decision in December 2021. This arbitrary mode of local designation was almost struck down, with the ponente – retired justice Rosmari Carandang – losing the vote 7-8 to the group of Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo. In Carandang’s losing opinion, this mode of designation under Section 25 should have been declared unconstitutional because it creates “chilling effect on speech and its cognate rights.” Carandang also said it “unduly exposes innocent persons to erroneous designation with all its adverse consequences.”


Bayan’s Reyes said their “lawyers are preparing to question these issuances before the proper courts,” but was not yet sure whether the question would be against the anti-terror law. “It is precisely the threat that the anti-terror law would be used as an all-encompassing tool to run after any form of dissent that prompted the NUJP to also file a petition before the Supreme Court. What we feared, and what the government assured would not happen, has happened,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). Apart from Bulatlat, the National Task Force to end Local Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and its spokespeople have also red-tagged other journalists.


Source: rappler.com