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NTC blocks over 20 'CPP-linked' websites on Esperon's request


The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites allegedly linked to "communist-terrorists" upon request by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Among the over 20 sites Esperon requested blocked were those of progressive groups Save Our Schools Network, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Pamalakaya Pilipinas, and BAYAN.

It also includes independent news organizations Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly.

"With reference to the Letter dated June 6, 2022 by the National Security Council, you are hereby directed to effect the immediate blocking of the reported websites found to be affiliated to and are supporting terrorist and terrorist organizations," NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba said in his June 8, 2022 letter to ISPs.

The NTC, in the same letter, also asked the ISPs to submit a report on the action they took in connection with the directive five days upon receipt.

Esperon's request

Esperon, in his request, said such websites are "affiliated to and are supporting these terrorists and terrorist organizations." He was referring to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its wings the New People's Army and the National Democratic Front.

"They have established a pervasive online presence through their websites that they continually use to publish propaganda and misinformation campaigns in order to malign the Philippine government, recruit new members, and to solicit funds from local and international sources," he said

Esperon's letter-request was posted by Bulatlat on Facebook. In a message to GMA News Online, Esperon confirmed that the document was "authentic."

Rights violation

In a statement on Wednesday in reaction to Esperon's request, Bulatlat said NTC's action is a violation of its right to free speech and free press as provided for under the Philippine Constitution.

"Bulatlat, the longest-running and award-winning online media outfit and the authority in human rights reporting in the Philippines, condemns this brazen violation of our right to publish, and of the public’s right to free press and free expression," it said.

Bulatlat said it already asked NTC and the Department of Information and Communications Technology to investigate the matter on June 20 but it has yet to receive a response.

The Altermidya Network, of which Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly are members, called on the NTC to reverse the order.

"This is a brazen violation of media freedom and the public's right to information," it said in a separate statement. "It sets a very alarming precedent for independent journalism and for media freedom."

According to Altermidya, Esperon and the National Security Council did not provide credible evidence behind their claim that Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, "as well as the other organizations on the list, are affiliates and supporters" of terrorist organizations.

BAYAN secretary general Renato Reyes agreed that such orders from Esperon and NTC are baseless and an attack on free speech.

“No specific offense or evidence was ever cited to justify the blocking of Bulatlat et al except for the Anti-Terrorism Council resolutions that do not pertain to Bulatlat et al. This again highlights the dangers of the anti-Terror Law,” he said, referring to the law that allows the Anti-Terrorism Council, which is composed of government security agencies, to designate who is a terrorist or a terrorist group.

Censorship

Human Rights Watch (HRW), for its part, said such state-backed blocking of media and civil society websites  is another dimension to the government's "outrageous, rights abusing efforts to red-tag and harass civil society actors, including journalists and activists."

"This is nothing less than a brazen attempt to undermine them and censor these media outlets and groups. What’s astonishing is how easily the government escalates its defamatory rhetoric, moving from red-tagging them to classifying them as terrorists, in effect terrorist-tagging them," Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy director in Asia, said.

"But the bottom line is the government has offered no solid evidence whatsoever to back up its claims that these groups work with the communists, let alone are preparing to bear arms against the government," he added.

Robertson said that NTC should refuse this attempt by the NSC to use it for political ends.

"The NTC should make sure that press freedom and freedom of expression online is upheld and respected," he said.

Some lawmakers also criticized the move, with Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate saying that this is "another throwback to martial rule era and a blatant violation of the constitutionally- guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and of the press."

"We have been warning this all along that this administration will arbitrarily and despotically weaponize the Anti-Terror law against its critics. By whimsically violating the sacred rights of our people through the terror law, this terrorizing act is bringing us back to the dark days of martial rule, without even the need of declaring Martial law," Zarate said.

For her part, ACT Teachers party-list lawmaker France Castro said the action is "red-tagging in the context of the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act."

"Red-tagging at the cost of stifling free speech and free press. Because the NSC, headed by National Security Advisor and Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) Vice Chairperson Hermogenes Esperon Jr. affiliates these independent media and progressive organizations to and are supporting so-called terrorists and terrorist organizations, they are censored and also tagged as terrorist organizations by the state," she said.

Bayan Muna chairperson Neri Colmenares, meanwhile, said blocking the websites and red-tagging the listed organizations "undermines their work as legitimate groups and sets a precedent for other organizations critical of the Duterte and Marcos regimes."

"It also sends a chilling effect to news agencies that fearlessly deliver the news no matter how devastating it can be," Colmenares said.

Esperon cites Anti-Terror Act

Esperon, however, maintained that his request to block such websites has merits.

He claimed that there is a supposed excerpt from Pinoy Weekly’s publication which states that armed struggle is a legitimate form of fighting for change in society as well as ending oppression and tyranny, including the 1986 armed revolution of the Filipino Katipuneros against the Spanish and American colonizers.

Likewise, Esperon claimed that there is an excerpt from a Pinoy Weekly library which states "Sa huli, inatasan naman ng CPP ang NPA na palakasin ang pagrerekrut at pagsasanay ng libu-libo pang pulang mandirigma mula sa hanay ng mga kabataang magsasaka, mga manggagawa, intelektuwal, kababaihan at iba pang sektor... ‘Dapat lalong itaas ng hukbong bayan ang kakayahan sa gerilyang pakikidigma, ang pagsisikreto sa mga paraan nito ng paglalakad at pagkakampo, upang manatiling bulag at bingi ang kaaway at mapawalangsaysay ang mga bomba at makabagong kagamitan sa pagsasarbeylans at pambobomba,’ atas ng CPP. ”

"These fall under Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. To call our act of protecting the integrity of our nation’s digital space as an act of desperation or a blatant attack on free speech is the one that reeks desperation because they are unable to counter these arguments and are actively pursuing acts of terrorism within their respective organizations," Esperon said.

"The right to free speech is protected, even under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020—and should be used responsibly and for a good cause. Hate speech, unjust propaganda, and seeking support for communist terrorist group-affiliated organizations should be seen as separate offenses that need to be limited," Esperon added.

Esperon thanked NTC for favoring his request.

"I thank Commissioner Cordoba for his support through the NTC’s orders to restrict the influence of these websites. The goal to protect and preserve our nation’s integrity and objectivity means that we are prepared to make the difficult decisions needed to prevent further negative influence from the CPP-NPA-NDF and its affiliated organizations," Esperon added.— with Anna Felicia Bajo/KBK/RSJ, GMA News

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