By Martin Sadongdong and Calvin Cordova
The Philippine National Police (PNP) urged the public on Friday to refrain from holding mass protests or any other similar gatherings in view of the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
This came after hundreds trooped to University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in Quezon City on Thursday to protest the looming enactment of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
“We were alarmed at the mass action and public assembly at UP Diliman campus yesterday which was held while strict public health measures are still being implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Police Brigadier General Bernard Banac, PNP spokesperson.
“As responsible Filipino citizens, we should avoid any opportunity for possible human-to-human transmission of a deadly virus that even UP scientists themselves are trying so hard to eradicate,” he added.
Banac said the mass protest held at the UP campus “has compromised public health and welfare,” including those who joined the march.
Instead of gathering, Banac proposed to dissenters to hold online protests just like what was done by progressive groups during the Labor Day protest on May 1.
“In this time of public health crisis, the safety of human lives is paramount,” Banac said.
However, activist leader Renato Reyes Jr. said that those who participate in the mass protest observed the minimum health standards including practicing of physical distancing and wearing of face masks.
As this developed, at least seven individuals who participated in a mass protest against the passage of Anti-Terror Bill were reported arrested by the police in UP Cebu on Friday.
Dozens participated in a rally that was held in UP Cebu around 10 a.m. but police in full gear were quick to disperse them, according to the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP-Cebu).
Those who remained after the dispersal were collared by the police, the CEGP Cebu said.
Among those arrested, according to the group, were Al Ingking, a UP alumnus; Jaime Paglinawan, of BAYAN Central Visayas; Joahanna Veloso of National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP); Bern Cañedo of YANAT Cebu; Dyan Gumanao of Kabataan Partylist; Nar Porlas of Anakbayan UP Cebu; and Janry Ubal, of local group “Food Not Bombs Cebu.”
Police Brig. Gen. Albert Ignatius, chief of the Police Regional Office Central Visayas, said the group violated the general community quarantine (GCQ) omnibus guidelines that prohibit mass gathering.
“They basically endangered the people of Cebu because we are in a pandemic situation and yet they held that rally. If they have the disease, they are just spreading the disease to other people. We are not against expression or holding protest if only we are in a normal situation. We have this pandemic and Cebu City is one of the most-affected areas,” said Ferro.
Ferro added that the group also violated Batas Pambansa 880 for holding the rally without a permit.
The city also has an existing executive order that prohibits mass gatherings due to the current health crisis.
Ferro said the group pushed through with the protest even after personnel of the Civil Disturbance Management (CDM) of the Cebu City Police Office asked them thrice to disperse.
“We didn’t want to arrest them without a dialogue. They were asked to disperse but they didn’t listen,” Ferro said.
When police started to disperse the protest, some of the activists ran inside the UP Campus where some of them were arrested.
The group slammed the presence of the police inside the UP campus which, according to them, is in violation of the UP- Department of National Defense (DND) Accord.
“Law on hot pursuit is applicable. They committed the violation outside UP and they ran inside the school campus. They shoved our personnel that’s why a chase occurred. Just because they were already inside the campus doesn’t mean they haven’t done wrong. They assaulted persons in authority and that’s a violation of the law,” Ferro said.
Ferro said the group could have staged a protest through social media to avoid possible spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
“We are just protecting the Cebuanos. Some people are following the quarantine rules and should they be exempted? We want to assure the Cebuanos that we will not be abusing our authority. We are just enforcing what is rightfully in the law,” Ferro said.
Critics were questioning the supposed misplaced priority of the government in fast-tracking the passage of the proposed Anti-Terror Bill even as the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers and rights groups opposing the bill also said it may be used in red-tagging dissenters, which could result in a spike of human rights violations in the country.
However, proponents of the bill and top security officials assured that there are enough safeguards in the bill to prevent individuals who will enforce the law from abusing it.