Philippine authorities are increasingly using the Covid-19 pandemic and new public health restrictions as an excuse to charge political opponents and activists with criminal offenses.
The latest targets were seven activists trying to distribute food aid last week in Bulacan province, north of Manila, who were stopped by police. They now face charges of violating the emergency law on Covid-19 and incitement to commit sedition after newspapers and magazines with anti-government content were found in their vehicle. The activists, including former opposition congressman Ariel Casilao, said they had proper permits for their relief activity.
The inclusion of the charge of inciting sedition – encouraging people to act against the government — against Casilao and the others raises concerns that the Duterte administration may try to exploit the crisis to crack down more broadly on political activism and dissent. With the country on lockdown, and police, military, and local government officials putting up checkpoints such as the one that stopped Casilao’s group, known activists and political opposition figures are at risk of being charged over what should be a purely public health driven campaign.
“Inciting to sedition” is also a charge that has frequently been used in the past against activists accused of being communist rebels, opening the door for the government to invoke its counterinsurgency apparatus.
In another prominent case, Edgar Labella, the mayor of Cebu City in the central Philippines, ordered the arrest on April 19 of Maria Victoria Beltran, an actress and screenwriter, for a Facebook post the mayor deemed “fake news.” Authorities detained Beltran for two nights, unnecessarily risking exposure to Covid-19, and allegedly arrested her without a warrant and denied her access to a lawyer.
Since the passage of the Covid-19 law last month, the authorities have investigated dozens of people and arrested several for posts on social media the government claims are “fake news.” Although “fake news” is not in any Philippine jurisprudence, the Covid-19 law does criminally penalize spreading “false information” related to the pandemic.
The Duterte administration has sought to increase its authoritarian grip on the country by politicizing the Covid-19 response at the expense of controlling the escalating pandemic. The government should signal that it’s taking the health crisis seriously. It could start by dropping the charges against Casilao, his colleagues, and Beltran, and ending politically motivated investigations of people’s reading materials and social media posts.