TIMELINE | Attacks on free speech, press freedom during COVID-19 lockdown

In this timeline, Bulatlat enumerates all attempts to curtail free speech and press freedom since the country is placed under the enhanced community quarantine due to COVID-19 pandemic until before President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his fifth State of the Nation Address.

Updated July 25, 4:09 p.m.


MANILA– While Article 3 Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution assures that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech and of expression, the ‘fake news’ provision under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act can be used to threaten citizens who air out their grievances and criticism against the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously approved March 24 Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020, granting President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers to address the current health emergency.

Section 6 (6) of the law penalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms,” with imprisonment of two months and/or a fine no less than 10,000 pesos.

March 16, 2020: Duterte declares Luzon-wide ‘enhanced community quarantine’ to prevent the coronavirus pandemic to spread further. At the same time, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-IED) orders that journalists  should first secure accreditation from the Presidential  Communications Operations Office (PCOO) within 72 hours in order to enter restricted areas during the quarantine.

March 17, 2020: Journalists, advocates and members of the academe call for the removal of the media accreditation guidelines, and argue that an additional identification is ‘redundant’ and the usual press ID should be enough.

See: NUJP asks Palace to reconsider media accreditation amid COVID-19 outbreak
Academe, media groups urge PCOO to rescind media accreditation

March 21, 2020: Duterte issues Proclamation No. 933 asking the Congress to conduct a special session and deliberate on a proposed bill that would declare a ‘national emergency’ and grant him emergency powers ‘necessary’ to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a similar note, a letter signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea is given to Senate President Vicente Sotto III, asking for the Senate’s own deliberation of the proposed bill.

March 23, 2020: The House of Representatives of the Whole conducts a special session, passing House Bill no. 6616, declaring the country under ‘national emergency’, as well as providing for the executive emergency powers ‘for a limited period and subject to restrictions.’

During the deliberation, netizens reject the idea of granting Duterte emergency powers. Using the hashtag #NoToEmergencyPowers, several netizens point out that approving the proposed bill is an ‘abuse of power’ especially since Duterte has failed to fully utilize existing powers and resources at his disposal.

March 24, 2020: Just a day after getting the approval of the House, the Senate approves Senate Bill no. 1418, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020.

March 24, 2020: Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia had rapper Brandon Perang escorted by police to her office where he was told to ‘apologize’ for his social media post criticizing and cursing Cebu’s 24-hour curfew. Perang made a public apology in a live broadcast press conference, and swore to never do the act again.

March 25, 2020: Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia ‘invites’ Today’s Carolinian‘s editor-in-chief Berns Mitra to her office and challenges him to defend his assertions in an editorial. Today’s Carolinian, official student publication of the University of San Carlos, published an editorial criticizing Garcia’s creation of a special unit tasked on tracing the public’s criticism over the government’s response on the coronavirus.

March 26, 2020: Philippine National Police files charges against four individuals who had allegedly shared false information in their social media accounts. All individuals are now facing charges violating the Anti-Cybercrime Law.

March 27, 2020: In General Santos City, a 55-year-old public school teacher Juliet Espinosa is arrested, along with her teenage son, after she posted a statement criticizing the General Santos City mayor’s incompetence. Authorities said that Espinosa is facing charges violating Article 142 of the Revised Penal Code or Inciting to Sedition.

April 1, 2020: National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) issues a subpoena to a Filipino citizen based on a social media post allegedly questioning the government spending.

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno takes on a case of one of the netizens, and calls out how the government would rather silence critics than deliberate more important matters.

NBI also issues summons to ‘more than a dozen of people’ over their social media posts relating to the coronavirus.

April 2, 2020: Netizens show their dissent online using the hashtag #OustDuterteNow after Duterte’s order to ‘shoot dead’ those violating quaratine protocols. The hashtag lands on the top spot of both Twitter’s worldwide and Philippines trending list with more than 327,000 tweets.

April 2, 2020: During the second episode of Bulatlatan, Josalee Deinla, spokesperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), say that the constitutionality of the ‘fake news’ provision can be questioned and contested in the Supreme Court.

See: Constitutionality of ‘fake news’ provision can be challenged — lawyer

April 5, 2020: Joshua Molo, editor-in-chief of University of the East Dawn is threatened with libel and forced to do a public apology for posting critical comments about the administration.

(See: Campus editor threatened with libel for criticizing gov’t response on COVID-19)

April 6, 2020: The Department of Environment and Natural Resources issues a memorandum discouraging its employees from ‘posting and commenting negative in social media.’ The memorandum is issued by DENR Assistant Regional Director for Management Services Marcos Dacanay.

April 6, 2020: PNP arrests over 32 individuals for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ in social media.The accused are now facing charges of violating “Unlawful Use of Means of Publication and Unlawful Utterances” under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code.

April 6, 2020: Armed police storm the community kitchen in Sitio San Roque, and intimidate and question the residents about the program and the placards displayed in the area. Policemen confiscate and tear up the placard of the residents’ call for support and aid during the outbreak.

April 15, 2020: Students of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) who spoke against the university’s decision to continue its semester through online classes receive notices from the administration saying that their actions can ‘incur disciplinary action.’

April 19, 2020: Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella orders the arrest of multimedia artist, Maria Victoria Beltran for allegedly violating Art. 154 of the Revised Penal Code in relation to Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Known for her satirical posts, “#DearDigong… Sincerely, Maria,” Beltran’s post satirized reports from the City Health Officer which claims that the whole Sitio Zapatera in Barangay Luz, Cebu City was considered to be infected and thus massive swab testing was to be stopped.

April 19, 2020: Six volunteers of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) are arrested after their jeepney was flagged down by Norzagaray police. Authorities claim that copies of Pinoy Weekly, an alternative news publication and Linang, newsletter of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, are “propaganda materials.”

Vague ‘fake information’ provision will only penalize free speech

Multiple groups question the need and legality of such provision, saying that Section 6 does not even exist legally as fake news is not defined by any existing laws, and approving such provision would leave the contemplation of the ‘crime’ to the hands of the authorities.

See:“Fake news” provision threatens freedom of the press, expression

Digital rights groups also express their concern about this provision, and question the ‘haphazardly approved’ law that penalizes ‘fake news’ under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

“While the provision appears to address the long-standing concern of journalists and activists over false information, which are typically circulated by paid trolling, it can also be used to curtail free speech, especially pieces of information that are critical of the government,” said the groups’ joint statement.

“The damages wrought upon it by fake news prior to the pandemic can only be repaired by promoting critical discourses. Make it healthy by keeping it free.”

April 26, 2020: Labor officials want to have Elanel Ordidor, an OFW based in Taiwan, to be deported and to face libel charges after posting comments critical of President Rodrigo Duterte on her personal Facebook account.

May 1, 2020: Iloilo police arrest 40 activists and alternative media practitioners during an indignation protest against the killing of Bayan Muna Iloilo coordinator Jory Porquia.

June 2, 2020: Six members of Piston Transport group are arrested by Caloocan police for violating quarantine protocols while they were holding a protest calling for government aid and for the resumption of their operations.

June 5, 2020: 8 protesters are arrested for allegedly violating Cebu government’s ban on mass gathering while the group was conducting a protest inside the University of the Philippines Cebu campus.

June 8, 2020: Sagip partylist representative Rodante Marcoleta calls ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo ‘un-Filipino’ during a Congress hearing after the Navallo released a report about the lawmaker’s previously filed bill allowing dual citizens to run for public office. Before that, Marcoleta and other lawmakers have been questioning the eligibility of Gabby Lopez as ABS-CBN’s chairman emeritus because of his dual citizenship.

June 15, 2020: Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. are declared guilty by the Manila Regional Trial Court over the cyber libel case filed against them by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

June 25, 2020: Super Radyo dzBB reporter Mark Macalalad is confronted by Marikina City police after his live report. Police demands to see his identification card to make sure that he was a part of the media and not one of the ‘enemies.’

June 27, 2020: Colonel Harold Cabunoc accuses Inquirer.net reporter Gabriel Lalu of writing fake news after the latter wrote an article regarding a farmer’s death. In a Facebook post, Cabunoc calls out Lalu for writing ‘fake information’ and asks if he is a ‘propagandist’ for the New People’s Army.

June 27, 2020: 20 members of Bahaghari,Children’s Rehabilitation Center , and Gabriela Women’s Party are arrested for allegedly violating quarantine regulations for conducting the annual Pride Protest in Mendiola. Police also attempt to arrest an intern of alternative media news outfit Manila Today, Habagat Ferrales.

July 3, 2020: Despite resounding opposition, Duterte enacts into law Republic Act 11479. Progressive groups hold a protest a day after the signing.

July 10, 2020: The House Committee on Legislative Franchises denies ABS-CBN’s application for a new franchise after 13-marathon hearings.

July 23, 2020 : Convinced that the Anti-Terror Law is anathema to democracy, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, members of LODI arts and media alliance and Concerned Artists of the Philippines file a petition asking the Supreme Court to declare the new law unconstitutional.

To date, 19 petitions have been filed by various groups calling on the Supreme Court to junk the law.


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