The Marcos family doesn’t have the best record with regard to human rights in the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos presided over the Martial Law period in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw the civil liberties of tens of thousands of people routinely violated by state forces. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s son and the Philippines’ new president, hasn’t done his family reputation any favors since his tenure formally began on June 30.
Marcos Jr. has expressed, many times, admiration for his father’s reign, calling it a “golden age” and lauding it for supposedly thrusting the Philippines into “modernity.” He has also been plagued by questions as to whether he intends to copy his father’s iron-fisted rule by repeating the Martial Law period. Marcos Jr. has consistently said of Martial Law, “It has its place but it is only for war.”
Recent events suggest there might not be a need to declare all-out Martial Law for the new administration to achieve the same results. There is another tool at the government’s disposal: the Anti-Terror Law, which was passed in July 2020 and affirmed as constitutional by the Supreme Court in April of this year.
“The Anti-Terror Law is enough of a shield against political opponents,” said public policy expert Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG). “The country’s economic and political conditions are so dire that anti-government protests are inevitable, probably leading to political instability. Marcos Jr. will respond with an iron hand, including the full force of the Anti-Terror Law.”
Tuazon also mentioned the Marcos family’s restoration to power as having a chilling effect, practically encouraging impunity.
In mid-June, a couple of weeks before Marcos Jr. formally assumed power, 91 activists and supporters were arrested after engaging in “bungkalan” – cultivation work done to assert land ownership – in Tarlac province, with charges filed against 83. Marcos Jr., who made himself head of the Department of Agriculture, was deafeningly mum on the issue, which involved a land dispute.
In the same period, longtime environmentalist Daisy Macapanpan was dragged out of her home without a warrant in broad daylight by fully armed soldiers. The incident was caught on video. The military claims Macapanpan is a terrorist and high-ranking official of the Communist Party. To most however, she is known for her advocacy against a hydropower project backed by tycoon Enrique Razon, a Marcos ally.
On July 3, four activists in Metro Manila went missing. All of them are members of organizations that have been consistently been tagged as enemies of the state. They have been added to the long list of enforced disappearances in the country.
On June 28, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, invoking Anti-Terror Law provisions, ordered the closure of 27 websites, including two alternative media outfits. Days later, the state ordered the shutdown of online news giant Rappler, in yet another worrying sign for press freedom.
The Philippines has transitioned seamlessly from President Rodrigo Duterte to Marcos Jr., with few hopes of an improvement on the human rights front.
In the last six years under Duterte, it has become commonplace for authorities to tag government critics as terrorists, communists, rebels, or all of the above. These blanket labels are what most bother critics of the Anti-Terror Law, which they say can justify circumventing judicial processes.
A record 37 petitions against the law were filed at the Supreme Court toward the end of last year.
Attorney Neri Colmenares was one of the lead opponents of the law. He explained his concern that “the definition of terrorism is overbroad and could encompass the exercise of constitutional rights.”
The law also empowers the president to create an Anti-Terror Council under his office which, according to Colmenares, “can designate anyone a terrorist without judicial process resulting in injuries. It allows freezing of bank accounts, gross surveillance powers, and usurps judicial functions by allowing detention for up to 24 days without bail.”
As a sort of consolation, the high court struck down two provisions, a decision that did serve to soften the Anti-Terror Law. It ruled that the state couldn’t classify a person or group as a terrorist based on the requests of a foreign entity and that dissent or protest activities could be construed as terrorism only if they were found to have the intent to harm.
But Colmenares says the law retains most of its key features, like an Anti-Terror Council under the president having powers to brand civilians as terrorists.
Attorney Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), is careful about comparing the Anti-Terror Law and Martial Law.
For him, both the Martial Law and Anti-Terror Law policies are period-specific. He pointed to a case in July 2021 when four farmers were jailed on violating the Anti-Terror Law for supposedly hiding weapons and helping communist guerrillas. Olalia said that the police planting guns and explosives is a recent trend of the crackdown on activists.
He added, “Lightning does not strike twice. The laws and situations are not completely identical, but, of course, there are parallels. In essence, they’re both the institutionalization and legalization of repression. We used to have the Anti-Subversion Law during the Marcos era. Throughout history, there have been many terms that those in power used, from bandits, to destabilizers, subversives, and terrorists.”
Nowadays, there is greater hesitation from officials to shoot for total, clear dictatorship because of the historical backlash that would incite. The Anti-Terror Law, in that sense, is the type of instrument that suits the times, allowing its wielders to avoid unwanted outrage while carrying out similar measures.
Digital Challenges to Democracy
Professor Diosa Labiste of the Google- and Meta-funded fact-checking coalition Tsek.ph shares that their findings suggest that the Marcos family benefited from a systematic campaign of disinformation. Social media is experiencing an avalanche of historic distortions, which seek to rehabilitate the notion of Martial Law, dictatorship, and the Marcos name.
“These are not new posts on social media” said Labiste. “The groups that shared [such posts] have long existed with huge interactions through fringe media and a network of coordinated influencers. Their posts exploded during the electoral period.”
What’s worse, she said, fact-checkers like her can only do so much. There is no mechanism with which to dismiss, label, downgrade or take down a post that has been flagged by fact-checkers. This gives free rein to those with the resources to steer the public toward misremembering the past.
“Duterte has already eroded a lot of press freedom. And that would get worse during Marcos because of a proclivity to ostracize mainstream media and favor bloggers or other sorts of fringe media,” Labiste said. “The Duterte playbook of clamping down on independent media and favor highly partisan info sources will continue.”
Will He or Won’t He?
Will we see Marcos Jr. wield the Anti-Terror Law to its most devastating ends?
Olalia offers some sobering insight: “We have the benefit of hindsight and the advantage of foresight to allow ourselves a preview. We’ve seen how stubborn Marcos Jr. is in his deflection of Martial Law atrocities. He also insists on not paying the 203 billion Philippine pesos his family owes in estate taxes. While not directly affecting civil liberties, it reflects on one’s moral integrity on whether or respect for human rights must be upheld.”
He concedes that it might be too early to tell what to expect. The weaponization of the Anti-Terror Law is a notion increasingly popular in common discourse, but Marcos Jr. has been in office less than a month.
However, Olalia’s preview indicates some clear worrying signs. “[Marcos Jr.] has been silent on the use of the law, but he has supported many of the militaristic initiatives that favor cracking down on government critics. In addition, he refuses to cooperate with the International Criminal Court which tells us there will be less safeguards on civil liberties.”