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Duterte’s Tight Grip on the Philippines

Roar writer Hannah Pham on President Duterte, his new anti-terrorism bill and authoritarian political history in the Phillippines.

“Forget about the laws on human rights”, Rodrigo Duterte, current President of the Philippines, stated. Looking into his three-year presidency so far, that statement is an overwhelmingly accurate one. The most recent concerning development coming out of the Duterte administration is an anti-terrorism bill that allows for unprecedented infringement on civil liberties and the consolidation of power in the name of fighting terrorism.

If Duterte’s track record is any indication of how this new policy will pan out, it will violate every possible avenue of freedom that a person can have, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the freedom of association.

Duterte came to power on a promise to the Filipino people that he is the hardliner, able to stop systemic crime and end political corruption. Previously, as mayor of the city of Davao, he acquired the nickname “the Punisher” for being tough on crime, leading the city to become the fourth safest in the world. As president, his rhetoric has definitely lived up to his reputation.

As soon as he came into power, he declared a “war on drugs”, comparing himself to Hitler by stating that “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews… there are 3 million drug addicts in the Philippines. I’d be happy to slaughter them all”. This statement has, of course, come under condemnation on the international stage, as extra-judicial killings relating to drugs continue to rise in the Philippines. A commission conducted by the United Nations has criticised Duterte’s anti-drug campaign as using national security as a cover to abuse “human rights, due process rights, and the rule of law and accountability”.

The law manifests itself on this recurring, unsettling scene. Drug addicts who are caught by the police are found killed on the streets, their corpses laid with their wrists bound by makeshift materials like cable ties and plastic cables from grocery bags. Feeble caution tape does nothing to hide the rotting body.

Naturally, the grotesque nature of the “war on drugs” has caused a backlash with Filipino news agencies. ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ top broadcaster was forced to halt “transmitting satellite and digital television.” The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has lashed out at this new policy, citing that “it is clear that the end goal of this administration is not only to shut down ABS-CBN but to send a message throughout the media industry that other news organizations may face the same fate, unless they surrender their watchdog role.”

Another example of the Duterte administration’s oppressive mindset towards the media is its relationship with Rappler. Rappler, a news site based in Manila, has continually criticised Duterte and his attacks on civil liberties and democracy. This, of course, has not gone without consequences. The founder of Rappler, Maria Ressa, has been repeatedly attacked by Duterte. She has been expelled from the presidential palace, been involved in a host of lawsuits, and most alarmingly was arrested on charges of cyber libel in February 2019.

Her arrest did not culminate into subordinate fear of Duterte. Instead, it inspired Ressa to speak even more critically of the corruption and abuse of power that Duterte has upheld in office. While the “war on drugs” is still a very central concern of Ressa, in more recent months she has also spoken out about how Duterte is spreading disinformation regarding how well he is handling the coronavirus pandemic, while also continuing to denounce the demonisation of journalists in the Philippines.

And now, the most recent manifestation of Duterte’s abuse of power – the anti-terrorism bill. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the bill gives “sweeping powers” to Duterte by assigning a broad definition of terrorism to authorize warrantless arrests and the ability to detain individuals indefinitely without an official charge.

Additionally, these powers sanction the government to respond to militant threats, but will also be extended to critics of Duterte and “may even limit access to humanitarian aid” because the bill criminalises those who provide “material support to an activity that is deemed a terrorist act”. Under these martial circumstances, it comes to no surprise that there have been protests against the implementation of this law. The passing of this bill is an unnerving one development in the culmination of power that Duterte is constantly trying to consolidate.

The Philippines is currently facing two pandemics: the fight against the coronavirus and the endemic corruption and abuse of power orchestrated by Duterte. The outgoing President Benigno Aquino who gave way to Duterte worried about how he would morph his power as president into a dictatorship, urging Filipinos to “remember how Hitler came to power.”  Through extrajudicial killings, sweeping granting of power, and attacks on the freedom of the Filipino press to criticise him, Duterte has proven thus far in his presidency that he holds the immortality of a dictator.

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