Democracy at a crossroads: Duterte’s lists of detractors

The presidential palace has released several matrices of alleged national security threats. Many are just individuals critical of President Duterte’s policies.

By Zachary Frye  

May 13, 2019, proved to be a good night for President Duterte. In the country’s midterm elections, Duterte’s allies secured nine out of the twelve Senate seats up for grabs. As it stands, only four legislators in the 24-member Senate are now explicitly opposed to the president, giving him a clear advantage in the chamber.

As Duterte consolidates his power, the further degradation of democratic norms looks set to emerge as one of the legacies of the election. In late April and early May, Manila released several lists of individuals who allegedly threaten national security. Included on the lists were journalists, lawyers, and opposition party members.

In many ways, the matrices reflect conspiratorial thinking: civil society members and public officials are accused of hiding connections to terrorist organizations and elaborate ouster attempts. This isn’t the first time Duterte has produced such a list. In 2018, the Department of Justice released a list of 461 individuals who supposedly warranted inclusion on a national terrorist list.

Photo: Facebook

One of the names was Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. Although she was eventually removed from the list, the UN argued her inclusion was an act of retaliation for critical public comments.

The matrices are causing fear and ridicule

It isn’t surprising that the administration released the lists during a contentious midterm campaign. As the election drew near, rumours that Duterte and several family members were linked to the drug trade circulated.

For a president with an obsession with law and order, this was an explosive allegation. While there is no concrete evidence to implicate Duterte, the administration wasted little time in responding to the rumours: it released the first matrix just days after the allegations surfaced.

Several of the accused are afraid that they will become targets for intimidation or acts of violence. Hidilyn Diaz, the Philippines’ first female Olympic medalist, is one of them. After her name appeared in one of Duterte’s lists of national security threats, she expressed concern for her and her family’s wellbeing.

President Rodrigo Duterte poses with Hidilyn Diaz, the first Filipina and Mindanaoan Olympic silver medalist, during a courtesy call at the Presidential Guest House in Panacan, Davao City on August 11, 2016. ACE MORANDANTE/PPD

“I am shocked. I am concerned for my security as well as that of my parents. My mother is terrified because [journalists] are interviewing her and she has no idea why,” she said.  

The lists undermine genuine national security concerns

While the Duterte administration wastes time educating the public on unsubstantiated conspiracies, pressing national security issues get pushed aside.

Despite a democratic resolution on autonomy in Mindanao, ongoing conflict threatens the livelihood of millions of families. On several southern islands, extremist groups continue to operate, sometimes attracting foreign fighters disaffected by the loss of Islamic State territory in the Middle East.

Carlos Isagani Zarate, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives from the left-leaning Bayan Muna party said: “It is saddening and we should all counter this. Everyone is talking about the matrix when the country has a lot of problems, which we should all be discussing now instead of this supposed plot. It’s like a smokescreen for the real issues of the day.”

A crackdown on dissent looks imminent         

In the 1970’s Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos signed into law Presidential Decree No. 90, codifying imprisonment for those who “spread rumours, false news and information or gossip…[that might cause the] discredit of or distrust for the duly constituted authorities [or] undermine the stability of the Government.” Marcos subsequently ruled the country under martial law for nearly a decade.

In 1986, President Corazon Aquino repealed Presidential Decree No. 90, citing violations to freedom of expression. Duterte seems less concerned about such sentiments: the administration flatly denies that the matrices constitute a threat to freedom of speech.

The release of these lists demonstrates Duterte’s willingness to take a page from the Marcos playbook.

Further rights violations may be imminent. Late last year, administration officials pushed for amendments to the country’s Human Security Act. The proposed changes included expansions to the legal definition of terrorism, less stringent arrest and detention rules, and the restoration of the death penalty.

With Duterte significantly buttressing his power in the midterm elections, the bill could be rushed through the House of Representatives and the Senate before Congress adjourns on June 7.

The matrices are a clear attempt to intimidate the sectors of society that oppose the president. Moving forward, the Philippines needs to keep watch on any backsliding regarding citizens’ freedom to openly oppose the president and his policies. Only a concerted national effort will ensure that the democratic freedoms of debate and disagreement remain viable.