Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends the Asean Summit, held via video conference due to the coronavirus pandemic, from the Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 26. (Photo: AFP)
The Philippines has been added to a watchlist of countries which have seen a rapid decline in fundamental democratic freedoms in recent months.
Attacks on press freedom and use of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on dissent have contributed to a narrowing of civic space in the country.
The new watchlist is released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the latest developments in civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philippine government declared a state of emergency on March 25 and granted President Rodrigo Duterte special powers by passing an emergency law. Among the provisions in the law is one penalizing the spreading of “false information” online which could be used to curtail freedom of speech and silence the media. Journalists have since been targeted.
Press freedom has also been under attack in recent months with ABS-CBN, the largest media network, forced off the air, depriving citizens of critical information during the pandemic. Further, the conviction of prominent journalist Maria Ressa, who was found guilty of cyber libel, has created a chilling effect among journalists.
The government is also on the verge of enacting a controversial new Anti-Terrorism Act, which would give law enforcement agencies broad surveillance powers and allow the police to arrest people without a warrant. There are concerns that the law has been designed to target critics of the government, not terrorists. Protests against the bill have been met with police force.
In the coming weeks and months, the CIVICUS Monitor will closely track developments in the Philippines and engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will hold its 44th Session from June 29 to July 17 in Geneva, Switzerland.
The UN recently released a report detailing widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity in the Philippines including the phenomenon of “red-tagging” — labeling individuals including human rights defenders as communists or terrorists — which has posed a serious threat to civil society.
The report will be debated at the Human Rights Council at the upcoming session, where CIVICUS will continue to call for an independent investigation into ongoing violations perpetrated by the government.
The Philippines is currently rated “obstructed” by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 49 countries with this rating. This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights.
The CIVICUS Monitor is a research tool that provides quantitative and qualitative data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in 196 countries. The data is generated through a collaboration with more than 20 civil society research partners and input from independent human rights evaluations.