Democratic backsliding: The ins and outs of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA) took effect last July 18 amid continuing public clamor for its disposal. As of press time, there are 29 petitions filed before the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality; the court has set oral arguments on the matter no earlier than the third week of September.

Debate over the new law is incessant. Critics of the legislation have raised concerns on its supposed ramifications. Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who voted against the Senate version of the bill, described it as an iron-fisted and “draconian” approach to governance. On the other hand, Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, a former police chief and a staunch supporter of the ATA, derided critics, saying that the government is not to blame if the law is junked and acts of terrorism still occur. Others, like Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon, supported the law after amendments, supposedly to safeguard human rights, were introduced.

Terrorism defined

Among the acts that the ATA considers as terrorism are those that intend to endanger life or cause damage to government or public property, facilities, or infrastructure, given that the purpose of such acts is to intimidate the public or the government or to destabilize the country’s social structures.

While the last clause in Section 4 of the ATA exempts actions such as advocacy, protest, and work stoppage, among others, it is limited by the condition that they do not endanger lives or risk public safety.

Additionally, there are at least nine other provisions that criminalize acts linked to terrorism, such as threatening, conspiring, proposing, or inciting to commit terrorism; joining or being a current member of a terrorist group; and providing terrorists with material support.

The way terrorism and related acts are defined, however, is an issue for Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties Convenor Atty. Tony La Viña. “[These are] a main concern kasi they’re so vaguely defined—anyone can sometimes fit into them if people are in bad faith,” he cautions.

One such example is the crime of inciting to commit terrorism. Section 9 of the ATA allows the punishment of any person whose speeches, writings, or other forms of expression might incite others to commit terrorist acts. La Viña confirms that a person need not have intended incitement in the first place for them to be charged with this crime, as the law mentions that any individual who unintentionally provokes others to perpetrate terrorism can still face up to 12 years of imprisonment.

La Viña also takes issue with the criminalization of providing material support to terrorists, which prohibits people from giving property or services to known terrorists or groups labeled as such. “Supporting people that are refugees,” he notes, “can be seen as support of terrorism if they (government authorities) say that those people are terrorists.”

A new way of arrest

Among the most criticized portions of the new legislation is Section 29, which allows law enforcement agents to arrest suspected persons without a court warrant after being “duly authorized in writing by the ATC (Anti-Terrorism Council).”

While ATA principal author Sen. Panfilo Lacson already denied that the authorization mentioned in the provision allows the ATC to order warrantless arrests, La Viña notes that it counts as an arrest warrant issued by the council instead of a judge. “It requires a finding by the ATC that these people committed these acts and therefore can be arrested,” he explains.

Normally, under Rule 113 of the Rules of Court, a police officer may arrest a person if the latter commits or attempts to commit a crime in the presence of the former—this is known as the in flagrante delicto rule. Under this standard, however, an arrest has to be made immediately for it to be valid.

“It has to be immediate…That’s why it’s (the provision) problematic and unnecessary because [with] in flagrante delicto, you can already arrest the person without getting an order from anyone…So that’s why this really means that it’s an additional way of arresting a person,” the veteran lawyer expounds.

Between security and liberty

Last June, the DLSU Political Science Department released a statement on Facebook that called for a veto of the yet-to-be-signed bill. “The Filipino people deserve a better law that promotes national security and counterterrorism,” the statement read. Full Professor Dr. Antonio Contreras tells The LaSallian that his department is worried about the “vast powers” that the ATC holds—powers that, according to him, overlap with the responsibilities of other agencies. 

The statement stressed the need for a clear distinction between overt and covert acts in the law. Covert acts, Contreras elaborates, are hard to distinguish and may be misinterpreted. “[How would you] distinguish from the covert acts of terrorism ‘yung legitimate exercise of the right to speak?” he says.

In theory, the exercise of political and civil rights such as protests and mass actions cannot be classified as terrorism. For EDGE2018 Batch President and One La Salle for Human Rights and Democracy Convenor Reeya Magtalas, such provisions in the ATA would only serve to further suppress critics.

Hindi naman talaga terorismo ang nais supilin ng gobyerno, kundi ang kanyang mga kritiko nito,” she asserts.

(It is not really terrorism that the government intends to suppress, but rather its critics.)

Magtalas finds that the law is consequential for everyone, regardless of their view of the government. “Activists or vocal administration critics shouldn’t be the only ones enraged [by] or afraid [of the ATA] because all citizens and groups will be affected if the law is implemented,” she says in Filipino. 

La Viña, meanwhile, advises those who may be anxious because of the ATA to not “be afraid of the law” and “assert themselves”, while cautioning activist groups “to be careful that they’re not being infiltrated by those who would hijack their agendas to make them about violence.” 

“I think that’s very important—to act smart in this while asserting our rights,” he summarizes.

While the ATA is supposed to strengthen Philippine counterterrorism efforts, this should not be done at the expense of civil liberty, affirms Contreras, who advocates for a more “systematic and holistic” approach in dealing with terrorist threats.

“The reason we have terrorists is because you have so many people that are angry, so many people are not very satisfied…they’ve [gone] to craziness because of what society has done to them,” he contends, noting that more developed areas in the country see less terrorist activity. “You have to address the roots of their discontent.”

Jan Emmanuel Alonzo

By Jan Emmanuel Alonzo

Ian Kevin Castro

By Ian Kevin Castro

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