In the Philippines, new anti-terror law threatens journalists

New York, July 18, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists expresses its grave concern about new anti-terrorism legislation recently enacted in the Philippines. A top justice ministry official has said that in certain circumstances it would allow the government to wiretap journalists. 

While the Human Security Act (HSA) specifically prohibits the surveillance and interception of communications between journalists and their sources, Philippine Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez told reporters in Manila on July 4 that he may recommend wiretapping of journalists.

“You cannot wiretap them. Their interviews and sources are sacred,” said Gonzalez, according to the Manila-based news Web site “Of course, unless there is sufficient basis or if they are being suspected of co-mingling with terror suspects.”

The HSA, which came into force on July 15, broadly defines terrorism to include 12 violent crimes, including acts of rebellion, piracy, crimes involving destruction, hijacking, and illegal possession of firearms and explosives, which create “a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.” Accomplices and accessories to terrorism will also face charges.

Local press freedom groups, including the National Union of Journalists, say it’s unclear whether journalists could be considered accomplices or accessories to terrorism under the new law if they merely interview or report the statements of those considered by the government to be terror suspects. 

“We are concerned that the broad and vaguely defined measures of this law could be employed to harass journalists, particularly those covering violent crime, terrorism and conflict in the Philippines,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “If the government cannot give an unqualified assurance that this law will not be used to inhibit the work of the press, then it should be repealed.”

Press freedom is guaranteed in Article III, Section 4, of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which says that no law can be passed that abridges freedom of speech or the press.

Even so, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government has previously repressed press freedom, citing national security. In February 2006, her government declared a state of emergency for a weeklong period to preempt an alleged coup and issued broad measures that barred news reporting that officials interpreted as destabilizing to national security.