Telcos ordered to block 27 websites with alleged communist ties
MANILA, Philippines — Invoking the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, the government has blocked access to over two dozen websites of groups allegedly allied with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), including several legal above-ground progressive groups and two online news organizations, officials said on Wednesday.
The move was made by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) in a June 8 order to Philippine internet providers as requested by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.
Two days prior, Esperon, chair of the Anti-Terrorism Council, wrote the NTC asking that groups “affiliated to and are supporting these terrorists and terrorist organizations” be blocked from the internet.
He listed 25 organizations with 27 websites. None of the legal groups had received prior notice.
Two of them, Bulalat and Pinoy Weekly, are alternative news sites that are focused on covering news and issues concerning the most marginalized groups in society such as farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous communities, and the urban poor.
Both have been victims of cyberattacks to deny access to their websites, including one traced to the Department of Science and Technology and the Philippine Army.
Esperon, who is also the director-general of the National Security Council (NSC), told the NTC that these groups used their online presence “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 informed the NTC that in three resolutions, the ATC had designated the CPP, and its armed and political wings, the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), as terrorist organizations, and the members of CPP central committee as terrorists.
One of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, PLDT Inc., told the Inquirer it had complied with the NTC’s June 8 order and “acted only upon its legal directive.”
Converge ICT Solutions Inc., in a message sent to the Inquirer, said that it will comply with the NTC order until it is “withdrawn or repealed.”
Globe Telecom did not immediately respond to Inquirer’s request for comment.
Of the 25 groups on the block list, only seven have websites directly linked to the CPP-NPA-NDFP, according to CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena.
These are the websites of NDFP; CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison; Liberation—the official publication of the NDFP; the CPP website Philippine Revolution Web Central; PRWC Newsroom; Revolutionary Council of Trade Unions; and Compatriots and Revolutionary Organization of Overseas Filipinos and Their Families.
Valbuena said he was surprised that Monthly Review and CounterPunch—both highly regarded US-based publications that promote progressive views—were on Esperon’s list.
Also on the list is International Action Center which was headed by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
Valbuena said the move was the government’s plan to “erect a Marcos Anti-Democracy (MAD) Internet Firewall in a desperate bid to censor online criticism and dissent” against the incoming administration of President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
“On the pretext of ‘antiterrorism,’ Filipino reporters and journalists will soon be under intense pressure to suppress information, news reports and views expressed by the CPP, as well as progressive and patriotic, and eventually of any views and reports that are critical of the incoming Marcos regime on the likely rationale that such news writing ‘destabilizes government’ and ‘undermines unity,’” Valbuena said.
In a statement to justify his action, Esperon on Wednesday said he included Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly because they allegedly sowed misinformation.
“Though we recognize that websites like Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly have been using their platforms to spread information on causes important to them, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to the fact that they have actively supported organizations affiliated with the CPP-NPA-NDF,” Esperon said.
He said Pinoy Weekly published articles that allegedly violated the anti-terror law in promoting armed struggle and recruitment for the NPA.
“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,’ reeks of desperation because they not only are unable to counter these arguments through any respectable means, but they are actively pursuing acts of terrorism within their respective organizations,” he said.
Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly denounced the NTC order as “prior restraint against protected speech” based on “mere hearsay” by Esperon.
“We raise the alarm that such arbitrary action sets a dangerous precedent for independent journalism in the Philippines,” Bulatlat said.
Pinoy Weekly called its online shutoff an “outright violation of the freedom of the press and of expression and an affront to the people’s right to information, especially with the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation on social media.”
Rolando Tolentino, former dean of the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines, and human rights lawyer Tony La Viña, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, demanded a stop to the red-tagging of journalists.
“Journalism is not terrorism, defend press freedom!” they said in a statement on Wednesday.
Altermidya Network, the umbrella organization for alternative media outlets, slammed Esperon and the NSC for not even bothering to provide “credible or solid evidence” of the two media groups’ affiliations with the rebel movement.
It also called on other media workers and all press freedom advocates to resist the alleged red-tagging campaign against alternative newsgroups.
“The biggest threat to democracy right now is not those unjustly labeled ‘terrorists’ for reporting the truth based on facts, but state agents like Esperon and the National Security Council who spew lies and disinformation to justify political repression,” it said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it had anticipated the action taken by Esperon and it was one of the reasons the group had joined others in assailing the anti-terror law in the Supreme Court.
“What we feared, and what the government assured would not happen, has happened,” it said.
“We have repeatedly warned against the dangers of red-tagging and how the practice paints groups and people as legitimate targets for threats, harassment and physical attacks,” it added. “This labeling in the form of an official government document, magnifies that danger even more so.”