Rights group warns ‘Bayanihan’ law provision may be misused vs critics
MANILA, Philippines — An international human rights group warned Wednesday that a provision of the recently signed law granting President Rodrigo Duterte special powers to address the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak can be “easily misused” by authorities “to crack down on online criticism of government efforts.”
In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson cited a provision under the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” which punishes “individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion” for being “overbroad.”
“Given the Duterte administration’s well-documented hostility towards freedom of the press and online critics, this law could be used to criminalize any online information the government dislikes,” he said.
“Instead of seeking to shut down online information the Duterte administration should respect the rights to freedom of expression and access to information,” he added.
Roberston said that the Duterte administration should focus on providing accurate and timely information about the disease “rather than abusing people’s free speech rights.”
“The Philippines has international obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds… Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for protecting and promoting rights, including the right to health,” he said.
“Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself,” Robertson further said.
The recently signed law would grant Duterte additional powers to adopt “temporary emergency measures” to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also authorizes the President to direct the “discontinuance” of appropriated programs, projects or activities of any agency of the executive department, including government-owned or controlled corporations (GOCCs), in the 2019 and 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA), “whether released or unreleased, the allotments for which remain unobligated, and utilize the savings generated therefrom.”
This is “to augment the allocation for any item directly related to support operations and response measures, which are necessary or beneficial in order to address the COVID-19 emergency.”
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