An entirely new generation of Filipinos, without realizing it, is seeing the resurgence of tyranny that oppressed the country and muted its voice for 14 years under military rule. Except that this one is much more flagrant, taking utter pride in its homicidal governance that thrives in the country’s chaotic version of democracy.
The recent arrest of Maria Ressa is the latest display of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Marcos-like rule. Ressa, the co-founder and CEO of online news outlet Rappler, was arrested on cyber-libel charges by the National Bureau of Investigation at the Manila newsroom on Feb. 13. The charges were based on a complaint filed with the NBI by businessman over a Rappler report published on May 29, 2012, linking him to the impeached Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed into law on Sept. 12, 2012, and went into effect on Oct. 3, 2012. Rappler, however, updated the story on Feb. 19, 2014, making it “actionable,” according to the Department of Justice which approved the filing of charges against Ressa.
In an interview with CNN, Ressa said her arrest on cyber libel charges demonstrated the Duterte government’s use of law as a weapon against his critics. “The only thing I can think of is that the government wants me to feel its power," said Ressa, who was among Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” honorees for 2018.
Rappler became Duterte’s public enemy No. 1 when it refused to stop its tenacious coverage of the president’s bloody war on drugs, which reached a death toll of 5,000 as of December 2018. At one point, it reporters were banned from covering the Office of the President. In the Trumpesque fashion, Duterte called it a “fake news” organization.
The cyber-libel case was the latest in a series of the government’s attempts to shut it down. In January 2018, Philippine securities and exchange commission revoked Rappler’s license. It was the culmination of a six-month case-building that began when Duterte, during his State of the Union speech in July 2017, declared Rappler in violation of the constitution because it was an American-owned entity. The court of appeals reversed the commission’s action.
Then came the tax evasion case. A warrant for Ressa’s arrest was issued in November 2018 following the government’s claim that Rappler owed $3 million in tax on the company’s 2015 bond sales to two foreign parties. Ressa turned herself in, posted bail and was released. The case is still ongoing.
The arrest of journalists and crackdown on critics are reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship, when unfriendly newspapers were shut down and journalists were incarcerated, leaving only state-run news organizations to peddle government propaganda, and allowing the coverup of the regime’s shenanigans.
“It is unfortunate that 45 years since the declaration of martial law, after 14 years of suffering under military rule, it seems that we have not learned,” Vice President Leni Robledo said last year during a mass for the victims of extrajudicial killings.
Sadly, Duterte’s dictatorial disposition is supported by the masses of his cult followers— “the troll army,” they are called — that propel his victory in the culture wars.
Two revolutions and six presidents later, the Philippines that said “Never Again” is again drawn to where it was before 1986. It is becoming a clear case for the philosopher George Santayana’s warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Mar-Vic Cagurangan is the publisher of Pacific Island Times