CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about a crackdown against activists and progressive groups in the region of Eastern Visayas by the Philippines government. These moves highlight the hostile environment for civil society to operate and the risks activists continue to face under the Duterte government.
In two simultaneous raids in Tacloban City on 7 February 2020, by police and the army, five activists were arbitrarily arrested including Marielle Domequil, a staff member of the Rural Missionaries Philippines-Eastern Visayas; Mira Legion, a staff member of Bayan Muna; Alexander Abinguna, secretary general of Katungod-Sinirangan Bisayas and Karapatan national council member for Eastern Visayas; Marissa Cabaljao of People’s Surge Network; and Frenchie Mae Cumpio, a journalist and executive director of independent news outfit Eastern Vista and Altermidya Network correspondent. Cabaljao was arrested together with her one-year-old baby.
Police claimed they found firearms and ammunition during the raids. They also claimed that they had raided “identified Communist Terrorist Group safe houses”.
Human rights group Karapatan said that the search warrants were shown to the activists only after they were arrested and claimed that the weapons had been planted by the authorities. Currently, the five, with Marissa’s baby, are detained at the Palo PNP Municipal Police Station.
Days before the simultaneous arrests, Cumpio was reportedly tailed by men riding motorcycles, whom she believes were military personnel. Unidentified men were also seen patrolling Eastern Vista’s office in Tacloban. On 31 January, an unidentified person visited Eastern Vista’s office and was reportedly carrying a photo of Cumpio.
“The authorities must halt its harassment and criminalisation of activists critical of the state and release the five immediately and unconditionally. Accusing them of being fronts to armed groups are clearly efforts to attack and smear these groups and undermine the credibility of their demands”, said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS civic space researcher.
Prior to these raids, Jennefer Aguhob, a member of Karapatan, was arrested on trumped up charges of murder in her residence in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental by the police and military on 5 February 2020. She has been accused of having links to the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
On 7 February 2020, the government froze several bank accounts of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), a Catholic church group, on suspicions of “terrorism financing.” The RMP, who work with the rural poor, has been previously tagged as a "communist front" because of their activism and their criticism of the Duterte government.
“These latest attacks show how far the authorities are willing to go to silence and shut down critical NGOs and human rights defenders under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Instead of using such appalling smear tactics, the authorities should be taking steps to protect them in accordance with their international human rights obligations,” said Benedict
The CIVICUS Monitor has documented how the Duterte government has been striving to halt or undermine the work of activists, media outlets and NGOs in the Philippines through various means. Some have been tagged as “terrorists” or “communist fronts” and vilified, particularly those who have been critical of the deadly “war on drugs” that has killed thousands. Others face judicial harassment or have been forced to disclose more information about their work and funding under the guise of fighting terrorism, or of countering corruption and money laundering.
In June 2019, 11 UN human rights experts raised concerns about the “sharp deterioration in the situation of human rights across the country, including sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights”. They called for an independent investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines.
The Philippines is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civic society in all countries across the globe.