The voice that travels across the Pacific


Illustration by Bless Cadayona

Philippine President Duterte’s signing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 causes controversy from human rights activists.

For Filipino-Americans and Filipino immigrants in the United States, October marks the celebration for Filipino American History Month. With this year’s theme being “The History of Filipino American Activism”, the cultural celebration remembers the efforts and endeavors to clarify history after eons of maltreatment and corruption Filipinos face in this country and in the Philippines.

For Filipino-Americans, social justice serves as a source of momentum for addressing recent events that have been the subject of activism in the Bay Area, from Filipinos for Black Lives, to rallying against the Anti-Terrorism Law, to Filipino nurses and frontliners fighting for the accessibility of safety gear.

Democracy enables freedom of speech, which the field of journalism embodies.

Intergovernmental organization Human Rights In ASEAN released an article mentioning the International Press Institute (IPI) ranking the Philippines as “the most dangerous country in Southeast Asia for journalists” — the total number of journalists and media workers killed having reached a body count of 177.

“No one can forget what happened in Maguindanao, where 33 journalists were gunned down and buried in a mass grave,” said Terry Bagalso, the editor-in-chief at Atlas publishing in the Philippines. “The election here is really (messy) and is always the bloodiest part of history.”

Terry Bagalso also has a part-time position as a radio anchor on a morning radio program that is broadcasted every Sunday. Bagalso openly talks about the current political climate in the Philippines — particularly about the challenges she faces as a media worker.

“All controversial materials give me worries and troubles, but if you want to give them the truth and fair stories, nothing can stop you from doing so,” Bagalso said. “I experienced being threatened, but in the end, the truth prevails.”

Bagalso mentioned the steps of making sure sources are credible and legitimate, such as researching the writer and the source, checking the credibility of the site, reading the comments and feedback, and being cautious about third-party information.

“For me, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are merely for entertainment, communication, and meeting friends and relatives,” Bagalso said. “Anybody can post anything they want. I don’t go for this. Some news are fake, sensational, or exaggerated, and we don’t know the sources — We don’t know if the person is real.”

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, legally known as Republic Act No. 11479, the intent of the act immediately caught human rights advocates’ attention.

Under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the word “terrorism” is defined through circumstances of conspiracy, proposal, and/or inciting to commit terrorism. Legal arguments were made regarding what the new law means for citizens’ rights.

In an exclusive interview with Ven Tesoro, former prison superintendent for women’s prisons at the Bureau of Corrections in Davao, Philippines, he addresses the law’s constitutionality.

“There is a part in the Anti-Terrorism law that may be deemed unconstitutional,” Tesoro said in Tagalog. “For example, being detained for being a mere suspect. However, there are qualifications for that, so, borderline, it’s not unconstitutional.”

Tesoro holds a master’s degree for psychology from Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Manila, and sometimes would be sent to other countries as a representative of the Philippines.

“Those elected fulfills the mandate of government through welfare, protection and security of the people,” Tesoro said. “This is why the government needs to arm itself with the Anti-Terrorism law, to protect the people against terrorism.”

In May of 2017, the southern region of the Philippines faced a five-month-long battle called the Battle of Marawi, during which the Philippines armed forces and militant groups associated with the Islamic State group fought each other.

“Here in the Philippines the people have no right to bear arms,” Tesoro said. “They make it hard to obtain a license. The people who are armed are either the police, the soldiers or the criminals. All in all, a law against terrorism favors the ordinary citizen.”

Fernando Montanes is one of many Filipino-Americans who strongly opposes the intentions of the Anti-Terrorism Law. He is a political science major and is also a part of Anakbayan Daly City, a Filipino youth-led organization that engages in activism for social justice, anti-imperialism, and economic justice for workers and lower income class people.

From a protest back in 2019 called the People’s SONA, which happens annually at the same time during the president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA). People’s SONA aims to expose the government’s lies and incompetence. (Fernando Montanes)

“For the most part, a lot of young Filipino-Americans ignited the significant momentum of support against it, thanks to social media,” Montanes said. “Not only did the Anti-Terror Law anger many Filipino-Americans, but it sharpened their criticisms against a government and a president that has done more harm than good in the Philippines. In the digital age where misinformation is very common, it’s really hard to get legitimate information.”

Around 24k social media posts under #JunkTerrorLaw raised awareness on how giving the executive branch more power to make decisions regarding terroristic intentions and actions will limit the right to freedom of speech.

“In essence, the language of the law has given Duterte and his military institutions open interpretation into who are ‘terrorists’ and why they must be stopped in order to protect ‘public safety,’” Montanes said. “It definitely attacks the basic rights of people, their freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom to protest, and the freedom of the press.”

A Filipino student activist who chose not to be named provided another argument in opposition to the new law, mentioning the connection between Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. In the United States and the Philippines, similarities come from the conflict of interests on both sides.

“Our U.S. tax dollars are given to police and military in the Philippines,” they said.

In 2018, the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines reported that the Philippines’ law enforcement agencies will receive $26.5 million from the United States for the next two years, in order to counter violence and terrorism in the Philippines.

“The Anti-Terrorism Law is anti-indigenous because it’s taking away our ancestral land, history, and culture,” the student activist said. “So for Filipinos supporting this bill, it’s a part of colonialism. It is interconnected with U.S. capitalism because Filipinos are forced to leave the motherland in order to find work.”

They also mentioned Brandon Lee, an activist from the Bay Area who was almost killed in 2019 after being shot four times in a suspected assassination attempt.

“Lee wanted to fight for jobs and livelihood for the people, so they would not have to migrate to other countries for work,” they said. “He believed education is better than the government and military using violence towards the people. This means the government does not want a true democracy to be formed.”

This year’s Filipino American History Month honors the bravery and challenges of activists across all fields, from frontliners and nurses risking their lives in the pandemic to provide basic and essential needs, to journalists and media workers that plays the role of the fourth estate, and regular college students that will be the future leaders and the voices of their people.