Crackdown against journalist and activists mars Human Rights Day in the Philippines

Journalist Lady Ann Salem, who was arrested by police along with six other activists on Human Rights Day. Photo by Manila Today, a content partner of Global Voices, used with permission.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly expressed his scorn for human rights in his public speeches, calling rights activists ‘enemies of the state’ and threatening to allow the police to shoot them dead. As if to stress the Duterte government’s utter contempt for human rights, on International Human Rights Day, police operatives arrested a journalist and six labor union activists in their Metro Manila homes on allegedly trumped-up charges of possessing weapons.

At about 3:00 AM on December 10, activist Diane Zapata issued an alert on Facebook about an ongoing police raid on her home in Quezon City by the police. She said her partner Denisse Velasco, a labor union organizer for Defend Jobs Philippines, was being accosted by police.

Later, at around 9:00 AM, Manila Today editor Lady Ann “Icy” Salem and Rodrigo Esparago, an organizer of contractual workers under the Sandigang Manggagawa ng Quezon City (SMQC) were arrested by police in Salem’s condo unit in Mandaluyong City. Salem is a member of independent media network Altermidya and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, which have both been red-tagged by authorities. She is also a communications officer for the International Association of Women in Radio and Television.

“We were forced to turn our backs for one hour while evidence was being planted.”

Unionists Romina Astudillo, Jaymie Gregorio, and Mark Ryan Cruz were also arrested in their residence in Quezon City. The three are labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno-Metro Manila's Regional Council members with Astudillo serving as the group’s Deputy Secretary. As the day wore on, information about the 2:00 AM arrest of Solidarity for Labor Rights and Welfare organizer Joel Demate also surfaced.

The seven have since been referred to collectively by rights advocates and civil society organizations as the “Human Rights Day 7” and the hashtag #FreeHRDay7 has been used to call for their immediate release from detention.

The Human Rights Day protest, traditionally held every December 10 to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, became an occasion to condemn the latest round of arrests. Braving threats of violent police dispersal, thousands joined a protest march to the gates of the Presidential Palace on the historic Mendiola bridge on Human Rights Day to condemn the Duterte government’s demonization and trampling of human rights.

According to authorities, the seven were arrested as part of concerted operations by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group to clampdown on loose firearms and criminal gangs. Police claim to have found assorted guns, explosives, and ammunition in their homes. But a few days later, authorities pivoted as the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) accused the seven of being top armed communist cadres that have infiltrated the national capital. The NTF-ELCAC is a body created by virtue of Duterte’s 2018 Executive Order 70 to coordinate the efforts of government agencies for its counterinsurgency campaign against a now 52-year-old communist rebellion.

All seven, however, contend that the firearms, explosives, and ammunition were planted by the authorities to justify their arrest. They assert being denied legal counsel during their arrest and being forced to turn their backs while the police searched their residences. A lawyer group has observed a pattern of authorities charging activists with illegal possession of weapons, noting that these are “easy to plant” and are in fact “monopolized by the police and military.”

For example, peasant organizer Amanda Echanis was arrested on December 2 with her 1-month-old child in Baggao, Cagayan Valley in the Northern Philippines on the same manufactured charges of weapons possession. The same happened to Frenchie Cumpio, Executive Director of independent news site Eastern Vista based in the Central Philippine island of Leyte, who was arrested along with four other rights activists on February 7.

An important backdrop to the arrests is the practice by the Duterte government of “red-tagging” or the branding of dissenters and activists as “communist-terrorists” to justify their suppression through arrests or extrajudicial killing. Political repression not only puts some of the most vocal critics of the government on the defensive but is also seen as a diversion of public attention away from the worsening economic crisis and the government's incompetent pandemic and disaster responses. The drastic narrowing of democratic spaces in the Philippines is underscored by the recent passage of a draconian anti-terror law, assaults on media freedom, and an overall climate of impunity.

In his first United Nations General Assembly appearance on September 23, Duterte delivered a 20-minute speech where he vowed to uphold human rights while in the same breath condemning those he claims have been “weaponizing” human rights against his administration. But the unprecedented crackdown on activists belie this as mere lip service and have spurred widespread condemnation and calls for the release of political prisoners under Duterte.

LOOK: Various progressive groups are at the Commission on Human Rights [on December 21] to call for the immediate release of the seven arrested on Human Rights Day. Photos from Kilusang Mayo Uno.

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