The Philippine national security adviser’s letter seeking to block more than two dozen websites, including independent alternative media outlets, for alleged links to communist insurgents is “brazen” censorship, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
In a June 6 letter published Wednesday, Hermogenes Esperon, the outgoing top security official, asked the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to ban 27 websites.
These sites, including the domain of Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and Bulatlat, a leading progressive news site, were found to be “affiliated with these terrorists and terrorist organizations and the support,” Esperon said. said in the letter.
“They have established a ubiquitous online presence through their website which they continually use to post propaganda and disinformation campaigns to slander the Philippine government, recruit new members, and solicit funds from local and international sources. “, alleged Esperon.
The NTC and the Justice Department did not respond to BenarNews’ requests for comment. In a June 8 memorandum, the NTC ordered the websites to be blocked, according to the official Philippines News Agency.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, described the move as another dimension of the government’s efforts to harass journalists and activists.
“This is nothing less than a brazen attempt to undermine and censor these outlets and groups,” he said in a statement. “What’s amazing is how easily the government escalates its defamatory rhetoric, from labeling them red to labeling them as terrorists, to labeling them as terrorists.”
“Red-marking” is a practice among Philippine military and police personnel of accusing individuals or groups of being rebels or communist sympathizers, according to rights activists.
Following the release of the letter, Esperon released a statement explaining its call for the websites to be blocked.
“Disinformation remains…one of the nation’s greatest enemies; and is in fact a powerful tool used by the Communist terrorist group to sow enmity and discord – dividing the Filipino people and separating us from objectivity and truth,” Esperon said in Wednesday’s statement.
“To call our act of protecting the integrity of our nation’s digital space an act of ‘desperation’ or a ‘blatant assault on free speech’ stinks of desperation, because not only are they unable to counter these arguments by respectable means, but they actively pursue acts of terrorism within their respective organizations.
One of the organizations on the list, Bulatlat, tweeted on Wednesday that subscribers could not access its website. The Duterte administration’s critical online news portal was accessible in other countries.
“This is a prior restriction on protected speech. This is downright unacceptable as it is based on mere hearsay from Esperon,” Bulatlat said in a statement.
“We are sounding the alarm that such arbitrary action sets a dangerous precedent for independent journalism in the Philippines,” he said, asking readers, fellow journalists and the public “to oppose attempts to muzzle legitimate sources of information”.
Bulatlat’s editors said they were repeatedly and unfairly labeled as communist sympathizers and subjected to cyberattacks.
Esperon had also called for the websites of the left-leaning civic and political organization Bayan Muna to be taken down. Its secretary general, Renato Reyes, urged telecommunications companies to “reject these illegal and baseless orders from the CNT and the National Security Council”.
“The next national security adviser is also called upon to revoke these unlawful orders and cease attacks on freedom of expression and freedom of association,” Reyes told reporters.
For his part, Esperon said that restricting access to these websites does not “necessarily mean a restriction for these organizations to engage in free speech.
“Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly and other websites listed in our letter to the NTC are free to continue publishing articles and editorials that fit their messaging lines, but they will not be accessible to Internet users in this country.”
The CPP’s military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), has been fighting alongside the Philippine government since 1969. Tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict, Asia’s longest active insurgency.
Incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed leftist and former university student of CPP co-founder Sison, has been targeting communists since 2017 after peace talks aimed to end the rebellion failed.
The Duterte administration declared the CPP and NPA terrorist organizations in 2020 and added its political wing, the National Democratic Front, to that list last year.
In his letter, Esperon cited the resolutions that designated the CPP and its wings as terrorist organizations to justify his appeal to the CNT.
In July 2020, the government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, an update to an earlier measure that the country’s security services criticized as weak at catching and prosecuting suspected terrorists. The law allows the government to arrest suspected terrorists without a warrant and detain them without charge for up to 24 days.
About six months later, Tetch Torres-Tupas, a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was accused by a military general of being a propagandist for communist rebels after she reported on a petition by two Aeta tribesmen against this deed. She was eventually cleared by military officials.
Duterte is at odds with reporters for reporting on his administration’s war on drugs, which has killed thousands since he took office in 2016.
His legislative allies shut down national broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp.’s free-to-air channel, while the head of online news site Rappler, Maria Ressa, was found guilty of cyberlibel. Ressa then shared the Nobel Peace Prize with a Russian journalist.
After six years, Duterte will hand over the reins of government on June 30 to President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato, Philippines contributed to this report.