Misplaced priorities



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

Before he resigned from the Cabinet, former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director General Ernesto Pernia warned of a sharp drop in remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) this year as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Pernia estimated the losses at a low of $6.7 billion to a staggering high of $10 billion. Remittances from Filipinos abroad, as we all know, are the single most important source of foreign exchange for the economy. Aside from OFW remittances, our economy also relies on revenues from the services sector, itself severely affected by the extended lockdown. The coming months will be uncertain times for the economy, and nothing short of hellish for the 7.3 million Filipinos rendered jobless so far by the pandemic.

Rebuilding the economy is a national imperative. While doing so, government must also continue to extend aid to the poor and other sectors displaced by the pandemic and the extended lockdown, including workers from both the formal and informal sectors, and small and medium-scale Filipino businesses. It must do so with urgency, efficiency, and a sense of compassion that recognizes basic human dignity instead of debasing it. Needless to state, the executive and the legislative must be aligned in purpose and dedication in this time of crisis.

Instead, our leaders and policymakers have chosen to give priority to the passage of the Anti-Terror Bill.

Certified as urgent, the bill breezed through Congress ahead of other crucial pieces of legislation addressing the pandemic. Only the most ardent defender of the proposed measure would argue that the Anti-Terror Bill responds to the needs of the times. To be kind, we may say they are only being facetious. But they are not.

Critics of the Anti-Terror Bill -- and this list includes lawyers, academicians, artists, celebrities, and ordinary citizens -- have been chastised by the bill’s defenders for their supposedly ill-informed reactions. They have been dared, with undisguised arrogance, to read the bill in its entirety.  Many have done that, and they have raised very serious concerns. For one, the bill violates basic rights and the Constitution by allowing the detention of persons for up to 24 days without charges. It also gives a proposed Anti-Terrorism Council, to be composed of members of the Cabinet and others who may be named to the council, the discretion to classify groups or persons as terrorists. It also grants to the council powers that are viewed as within the exclusive domain of the judiciary.

It has been pointed out that other countries have their own versions of the anti-terror law, with provisions more draconian. But these are, with few exceptions, countries where accountability and professional conduct are more the norm than the exception among law enforcers, with judiciaries that are independent and impartial. Sadly, such is not our case. Our law enforcement agencies have a long and tarnished history of planting evidence, filing false charges, involvement in criminal activities and extra-judicial killings, and abusing their authority over common citizens. And many citizens view the justice system as far from being fair and impartial.

The authors of the bill want us to trust the same agencies and institutions with a track record of abuse and misconduct. That would be a hard sell. Recall our nightmarish experience with martial law and its militarized government. Then review the conduct of the war on drugs and the heavy-handed enforcement of the pandemic lockdown. It would be difficult to earn the trust of a public that has lived in fear of abusive men in uniform.

The bill itself is riddled with vague provisions that could encourage political repression. All it would take, as in the war on drugs, is a badly drawn matrix purportedly showing a link between terrorist groups and the opposition -- presented with much hype by a high-profile administration personality -- to ignite a pogrom. It does not help that the penalty for making false accusations, a safeguard previously included in the amended Human Security Act, has been deleted in the bill.

As in the past, the framers of the bill are fanning the people’s fear -- of communists, drug lords and pushers, and now terrorists -- in order to convince them that some of their rights need to be surrendered if these “enemies” are to be defeated. They expect the people to fall silent as the enforcers slowly choke off the breath from our Constitution. This must not come to pass.