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Roque: Constitutional right to freedom of expression superior to anti-terror bill

The anti-terror bill, which allows detention of suspected terrorists for 10 to 24 days without a warrant, does not infringe on peoples’ constitutional right to free expression and press freedom, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, Jr. said on Tuesday. 

Roque was responding to criticisms that the anti-terror bill—certified as an urgent measure by President Rodrigo Duterte this week amid the COVID-19 pandemic—will pave the way for a crackdown on government critics. The said bill allows warrantless arrest and surveillance on people based on suspicion that they are involved in terrorist activities.

“There is a hierarchy of laws. Our Constitution is supreme, then [there are] the laws enacted by Congress. When the act of Congress infringes on the Constitution, it will be declared by the court as unconstitutional. Despite the [anti-terror] law, our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression,” Roque said in an ANC interview. 

Roque was referring to Article 3, Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which states that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“There is an established jurisprudence on freedom of expression, and the only way that the government can curtail freedom of expression is if there is clear and present danger which the state has the right to prevent,” Roque said.

“Unless the state can establish that there is clear and present danger, and in terrorism it is easily to do so, the freedom of expression will not be infringed upon. That right enjoys a high priority, even higher than property rights,” Roque added.

Roque also downplayed fears that the measure—which removed the existing provision of the Human Security Law imposing P500,000 a day penalty on authorities for detention of any person acquitted of terrorism charges—will be used by authorities to arrest anyone opposed to government policy such as peaceful protesters.

“Terrorism is defined as an act sowing fear and terror which amounts to clear and present danger. The right to strike cannot be suppressed,” Roque said. 

In closing, Roque said that certifying the measure as urgent was not done on a whim, but based on necessity in the aftermath of the Marawi siege in 2017 where terrorists held the Islamic city under siege for five months, killing people and leaving the city in shambles to the tune of P53 billion worth of damages.

“We only had two convictions under the existing Human Security Act. Clearly, our laws lack the teeth, given the current face of international terrorism,” Roque said.

“This is not something that just cropped up,” Roque added.

But for lawyer UP constitutional law professor Tony Laviña, the measure is dangerous as it gives too much latitude to the Executive branch to identify who are terrorists because of the provision penalizing those inciting terrorism. 

“It gives too much power to the Executive branch to go after people who are not terrorists, who are not even committing crimes but are expressing legitimate criticism or dissent,” Laviña said on ANC.

“What Senator [Vicente] Sotto III said na ang may ayaw nito eh supporters ng terorista, that is precisely the problem. This measure allows the government to call you a terrorist just because you are against the anti-terror law. That is very dangerous,” Laviña added.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Tuesday said the anti-terror bill is "as good as passed."

"It will just need my signature if it comes back to us after ratification then I will transmit to the President," Sotto said in a message to GMA News Online.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the bill on second reading—Llanesca T. Panti/KG, GMA News