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TAKE TO THE NEXT LEVEL: Government Agencies Address the Challenges and Issues of Freedom of Opinion and Expression

February 1, 2024

MANILA -- On January 31, 2024, Ms. Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, met with key officials of the National Security Council (NSC), the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), and the Anti-Terrorism Council Program Management Center (ATC-PMC) at Malacañang Park, Manila. The purpose of the meeting was to openly discuss specific actions and strategies aimed at addressing the challenges faced by government agencies in ensuring free and vibrant freedom of speech in the country.

This marked the second time that the UNSR engaged in such a dialogue with NTF-ELCAC and ATC-PMC, demonstrating a commitment to understanding how their mandates related to counterterrorism is vital in achieving lasting peace while also promoting and safeguarding the right to freedom of opinion and expression of the Filipino people. During the first dialogue with Ms. Khan on January 24, 2024, in Quezon City, wherein she raised a few questions. Hence, this interagency meeting was organized to provide a platform aimed at addressing the questions and issues raised.

Given the early stages of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), it is crucial for addressing legal gaps in anti-terrorism legislation and it should be seen as part of a broader strategy of the government. In response to Ms. Khan, Attorney. Andrew Joshua Alcantara, Acting Executive Director of ATC-PMC thoroughly explained Section 29 (Detention without a judicial warrant of arrest) of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. He also discussed how the ATA is enforced in accordance with its Implementing Rules and Regulations. He further explained that as of CY2023 there were terrorism cases filed based on the data provided by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Meanwhile, on the issue of alleged “red-tagging” that has been consistently rejected by the Government due to the absence of any policy or jurisprudence substantiating such claims, Undersecretary Ernesto C Torres Jr., Executive Director, National Secretariat, NTF-ELCAC, reiterated that, “NTF-ELCAC serves as a mechanism to ensure inter-agency convergence, harmonizing existing policies and programs across different government agencies to address the armed conflict and resolve the root causes of insurgency. The Task Force prioritizes transparency among its member agencies to uphold good governance and preserve human rights while navigating with the complexities of the CPP-NPA-NDF front operations and dual tactics. Hence, the Task Force has established mechanisms to address issues of law enforcement agencies committing transgressions while performing their duties. Furthermore, we consistently remind and accommodate any aggrieved parties or individuals to file complaints, as our justice system and investigating institutions function freely and independently.” USec Torres also emphasized that, in light of these issues, the NTF-ELCAC has been fortified as a mechanism dedicated to respecting and safeguarding the human rights of every Filipino, adhering to international standards and practices that uphold an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. Simultaneously, Director Jose Descallar mentioned how the Task Force remains committed to promoting the human development and dignity of our citizens, recognizing the importance of private-sector representatives and stakeholders’ engagement.

During the discussion, Ms. Khan cited the Bagong Pilipinas campaign and other initiatives, such as exploratory talks, as positive steps. Similarly, NSC Spokesperson Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya, who also heads the NTF-ELCAC's Strategic Communications Cluster, has expressed his support for President Marcos administration's Bagong Pilipinas vision and strategy. He stated that the current governance and leadership will result in "deep and fundamental transformations in all sectors of society and government," as well as foster a "principled, accountable, and dependable government" that can make the Filipinos trust the government. In addition, he conveyed that the National Security Council's approval of exploratory peace talks builds on the success of the localized peace engagements in ending the country's long-standing armed conflict.

In summary, the active discussion focused on the duties and responsibilities of those in government on freedom of opinion and expression, as well as how to address the challenges posed by the CPP-NPA-NDF. Finally, it was made clear that, "Any citizen may be subjected to certain legal restrictions required to respect the rights or reputation of others, or to protect national security, public order, and morals. These limitations must be narrowly defined and enforced without being arbitrary or discriminatory."

The meeting ended with Ms. Irene Khan, UNSR, receiving the NTF-ELCAC coffee table book from NTF-ELCAC. As described by Undersecretary Torres, “This book highlights stories of transformed lives, empowered citizens and communities, and various sectors working as one to make peace within reach by all Filipinos….. It showcases the effectiveness of the various institutional mechanisms in putting to work the Whole-of-Nation Approach in peacebuilding to bring about positive change in our society.” ###


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