THE PANDEMIC drew out more clearly the Duterte’s disregard for human rights as the president ordered the military and police to the frontlines of the battle against the disease. Recalling his “war on drugs,” the approach reflected concerns about security, which seemed misplaced when dealing with those who could not abide by quarantine restrictions. The issues of poverty and population density were not in mind as police patrolled the streets as though searching for violent criminals.
The treatment of citizens caught breaking the rules of quarantine has been harsh, hauling them to overcrowded detention centers, where they were exposed to contamination. Not surprisingly, the period of peril documented police officers in cases of cruel and inhumane conduct against citizens.
From March 17 to December 31, CMFR picked up cases of warrantless arrests, cruel punishments, intimidation, stifling of criticism online and the shooting a person for violating lockdown protocols. The shooting victim was later identified by the community as having served in the armed forces in Marawi and was still suffering from its trauma.
Media reported some of the incidents, but unfortunately failed to highlight the emerging threat of another human rights crisis as the president called out his uniformed officers to the urban field where a beleaguered population struggled to provide for their families to survive.
Suppression of Free Speech
The Bayanihan to Heal as one Act or the Republic Act (RA) 1149 secured the sources for cash aid to the poor and to provide for other subsidies. The same law also included penalties for “fake news” and dissemination of false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis. Giving the government the authority to decide on offensive content clearly encroached on the freedom of expression as well press freedom, principles enshrined and protected by the constitution.
The following cases show the implementation of the law’s penalties when these expressions of frustration and anger should have been treated as “venting, or letting off steam, a natural effect of the severe difficulties of quarantine.
Restrictions in Media Freedom
From January 1 to December 31 in 2020 at least 42 incidents of threats and attacks against the press. It is worth noting that these actions against the press had been recorded even before the pandemic. The graph shows how even without the pandemic, the free press has to contend with such violence and harassment.
Since Duterte assumed office on 30 June 2016, CMFR recorded 197 threats and attacks against journalists and media workers.
Accreditation of journalists
Media groups protested the added mechanism of bureaucratic control over the press by requiring their accreditation for working members of the media who already carry their press cards. Accreditation is necessary only when you have limited space in a venue, which meant only those assigned by their organizations would be given entry through accreditation. But having to submit a process of accreditation by the PCOO was clearly un-necessary, providing government another instrument for checking on the media.
Closure of ABS-CBN
On May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease and desist order to ABS-CBN, the largest broadcasting network in the country as a result of the failure of the Congress to act on the networks application.
In July, the House did not approve ABS-CBN application for franchise.
Red-tagging and arrests
There was also no let-up in the increased practice of red-baiting especially by government officials and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The agency has red tagged journalists, activists and other organizations critical of the government. Some of those red-tagged were arrested and were charged with illegal possession of firearms and other deadly weapons. Some were killed by unidentified men.
Cruelty, public humiliation of ordinary citizens
The inhumane treatment of violators of quarantine regulations in some parts of the country was exemplified by the abominable treatment of citizens, including the incarceration of violators in a dog cage; parading them in public with hands tied and bound by one long rope, and forcing them to sit under the sun for hours.
Footage of some of these incidents went viral: a cop beating curfew violators, and the police forcing LGBT violators to kiss while being filmed for videos.
Serious health risk in detention
In the midst of the pandemic, there was no let-up in the quick arrests, resulting in detention of alleged offenders, as arresting police seemed unmindful of the catastrophic health threat already posed on inmates in the over-crowded jail cells of the country. Among the most congested in the world, Philippine media have reported on the health issues calling for urgent action given the danger of disease.
Unlawful Police Entry violates private property
The police have intimidated citizens even in within their private property. On April 20, police barged into a condominium compound in Taguig City to implement social distancing measures allegedly being disregarded by residents.
A resident of Dasmariñas Village in Makati City on April 26 was assaulted by a police officer who castigated the househelp for watering plants without a face mask.
On April 21, 20 days after the president said the police and military could shoot- dead violators of the ECQ, a retired soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder was shot and killed by a cop.
Reports said that Winston Ragos was accosted at a check point and was asked why he was outside despite the lockdown. Bystanders were telling the police that Ragos was mentally unstable.
Ragos raised his arms, and as he turned to face the officers, appeared to be reaching for something in his bag, at which point he was shot dead by an officer.
The police later said that the officer thought Ragos was pulling a gun from his bag, also claiming later that Ragos had a firearm, which the victim’s relatives denied.
From April 1 to December 31, the media also reported at least two other people shot by police at check points.
Covering Human Rights
The media usually rely on human rights groups such as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Karapatan, and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) to provide the perspective or reference to concerns on human rights. But in detailing the cases reported, the media rely on what police reports have recorded, lifting the “facts” as recorded in the police blotter.
The reporting process calls for review. Some of the reports are written as straight news, with details obviously lifted from police reports, which are devoid of such references to human rights.
Media should also get other independent sources to get the necessary context of the story and present these different perspectives as having been evaluated for their facts or “truthfulness.” Taking what the police record at their say so, and then tacking on the views of the advocates, the media abdicate their responsibility to sort out the facts and determine which are valid.
Editorials by the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Manila Standard on April 28 called out the abuses and the setting aside of civil liberties. These pieces called attention to a repeat of the critical failure in the “war on drugs.”
Unfortunately, the Duterte administration has shown no greater capacity to confront the pandemic.