The Philippines is a multiparty, constitutional republic with a bicameral legislature. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, elected in May 2016, began his constitutionally limited six-year term in June 2016. Midterm elections in May for 12 (of 24 total) senators, all congressional representatives, and local government leaders were seen as generally free and fair, despite reports of violence and vote buying. The ruling party and allies won all 12 Senate seats and maintained a roughly two-thirds majority in the 306-seat House of Representatives. Barangay (village) and youth council elections originally scheduled for 2021 were rescheduled for December 5, 2022 so that local and national elections will occur in the same year.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) is charged with maintaining internal security in most of the country and reports to the Department of the Interior. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which reports to the Department of National Defense, is responsible for external security but also carries out domestic security functions in regions with a high incidence of conflict, particularly the Mindanao region. The two agencies share responsibility for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. The PNP Special Action Force is responsible for urban counterterrorism operations. President Duterte’s May 2017 declaration of martial law for the entire region of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago was extended until the end of the year, giving the military expanded powers in the area. Governors, mayors, and other local officials have considerable influence over local police units, including appointment of top departmental and municipal police officers and the provision of resources. The government continued to support and arm civilian militias. The AFP controlled Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs), while Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) fell under PNP command. These paramilitary units often received minimal training and were poorly monitored and regulated. Some political families and clan leaders, particularly in Mindanao, maintained private armies and, at times, recruited CVO and CAFGU members into those armies. Civilian control over security forces was not fully effective.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; reports of forced disappearance by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; torture by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; arbitrary detention by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; corruption; and unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by terrorists and groups in rebellion against the government.
The government investigated a limited number of reported human rights abuses, including abuses by its own forces, paramilitaries, and insurgent and terrorist groups. Concerns about police impunity continued following the increase in killings by police in 2016. Significant concerns also persisted about impunity for the security forces, civilian national and local government officials, and powerful business and commercial figures. Slow judicial processes remained an obstacle to bringing government officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses to justice.
Muslim separatists, communist insurgents, and terrorist groups continued to attack government security forces and civilians, causing displacement of civilians and resulting in the deaths of security force members and civilians. Terrorist organizations engaged in kidnappings for ransom, bombings of civilian targets, beheadings, and the use of child soldiers in combat or auxiliary roles.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Government harassment of some media outlets occurred, however, and polls suggested many Filipinos consider it dangerous to publish information critical of the administration.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest. Civil society organizations, however, said that President Duterte’s public attacks on individuals and international bodies who criticized his policies had a chilling effect on free speech and expression.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, including criticism of the government, despite critical and threatening comments from political leadership, including the president.
Journalists noted President Duterte’s tendency to single out reporters who asked tough questions had a chilling effect on their willingness to engage, in large part due to a fear of losing access.
The online news website Rappler was a target of substantial pressure, including legal and administrative actions, which some observers attributed to its critical coverage of the government. Rappler reporters and provincial correspondents are banned from presidential palace events and press briefings. In April, Rappler asked the Supreme Court to declare the coverage ban unconstitutional, and in August, 41 journalists from different media organizations joined Rappler’s petition in the case.
In March, Rappler lost its appeal before the Court of Appeals (CA) against the CA’s ruling that the investment Rappler receives from U.S.-based Omidyar Network violated constitutional prohibitions on foreign control of a media company. The CA ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to reassess the revocation of Rappler’s operating license; the SEC has yet to release the results of its review. Rappler Holdings and its president, veteran journalist Maria Ressa, were simultaneously facing a number of other court challenges stemming from the foreign investment allegation, charges that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated” and which it described as an attempt to muzzle critics of President Duterte and his war on drugs.
On March 28, Ressa was arrested on charges related to the foreign financing issue and released later the same day after posting bail, her second arrest of the year (see “Libel/Slander Laws” below). In October a court ordered the suspension of proceedings and remanded one of the cases concerning supposed code violations back to city prosecutors citing a denial of Rappler’s due process since the publisher was not initially informed of the alleged violations, thus preventing an appeal.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from politicians and government authorities critical of their reporting. Human rights NGOs frequently criticized the government for failing to protect journalists. Government authorities accused members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines of supporting the communist insurgency, claims the organization said were meant to intimidate and silence its members.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a press freedom NGO, reported the Mindanao-based radio broadcaster, Eduardo Dizon, was killed on July 10. The broadcaster’s station claimed his killing was meant to silence media personalities critical of politicians in the region. As of October, CMFR had not determined whether two other journalists’ deaths and another journalist’s shooting during the year were related to their work. According to CMFR, as of November a total of 15 journalists have been killed since President Duterte’s election in 2016, and Human Rights Watch reported that journalists and media personalities noted an increase in online harassment and threats of violence in response to articles and comments critical of the government since 2016.
In April the presidential palace disseminated a “matrix” of institutions and individuals allegedly involved in a conspiracy to discredit and oust President Duterte ahead of the May midterm elections. Among those implicated were journalists from Rappler, Vera Files, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. The incident was characterized by human rights NGOs and journalists as an attack on press freedom and the president’s opponents.
In June a survey from polling company Social Weather Stations showed that 51 percent of the country’s residents agreed with the statement: “It is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.” Nonetheless, the same survey found that 67 percent of the respondents agreed that “mass media in the Philippines have freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press.” Reporters Without Borders noted the government has found ways to pressure journalists who are critical of administration policies.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law requires broadcast franchise renewals be approved by congress; the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, the nation’s most influential broadcast network, has remained in limbo since 2016. President Duterte claimed that the station collected money for, then did not air, his political advertisements during the 2016 election campaign, and he publicly threatened to block renewal of the network’s franchise, which expires in March 2020. Although the president later backtracked and said he would not intervene, as of October the renewal remained tied up in congress, dominated by Duterte allies.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law contains criminal penalties for libel, including, since 2012, for undefined “cyberlibel.” Authorities used criminal defamation charges, with the possibility of imprisonment and fines, to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against journalists. Until February 13, the “cyberlibel” law had not been tested in court. That day the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed “cyberlibel” charges against Rappler’s CEO Ressa and a Rappler journalist. The charge stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed by prominent businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 article linking him to human trafficking and drug smuggling. The NBI initially rejected the case as lacking any legal basis but subsequently recommended that the Department of Justice pursue charges against Rappler. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the case “politically motivated” and “an assault on media freedom.” On February 13 Ressa was arrested, charged, and held overnight before being released on bail. Three days after the arrest, the news outlet Philippine Star took down a 2002 online article on Keng, reportedly after he “raised the possibility of legal action.” The 2002 article was a source for the 2012 Rappler piece. Media groups criticized the Philippine Star for caving to political pressure. In October the court granted Rappler’s request to file a motion for case dismissal based for insufficient evidence, but the plea was denied in November, with another hearing set for December.
With the exception of mobile communications blocked during special events for security purposes, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet. While the government did not overtly censor online content, there were credible reports of government-connected groups using coordinated inauthentic online behavior to suppress speech critical of the government. There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority.
There were no national government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. But the government suspended the licenses of several schools for indigenous Lumad people on Mindanao, in part because of alleged failure to comply with curriculum rules (see section 6, Indigenous People).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Foreign Travel: Government limits on foreign travel were generally based on security or personal safety factors, such as when a citizen had a pending court case, or to discourage travel by vulnerable workers to countries where they could face personal security risks, including trafficking or other exploitation. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration manages departures for work abroad. It requires overseas workers to register and receive predeparture screening, training, and certification before traveling, and is intended to ensure that future overseas workers deal with legitimate, licensed recruitment agencies.
Decades of sectarian and political insurgency, sporadic interclan fighting, and natural disasters have generated significant internal displacement. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) was uncertain and fluctuated widely. Counterinsurgency campaigns against the ASG, primarily in Sulu and Basilan Provinces, and clashes with the NPA, concentrated in the most geographically remote provinces, caused sporadic and small-scale displacement. Most IDPs were women and children.
In Mindanao the UN High Commission for Refugees reported that as of June, more than 158,000 persons were displaced and in need of durable solutions, most of whom were located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (the BARMM). Of those, approximately 140,000 were displaced by armed conflict, 9,600 by crime or violence, 4,600 by clan feuds, and 3,900 by natural disasters.
Government agencies, often with support from UN agencies and other international donors, provided food (although NGOs noted food aid was sometimes delayed); constructed shelters and public infrastructure; repaired schools; built sanitation facilities; offered immunization, health, and social services; and provided cash assistance and skills training for IDPs. The government permitted humanitarian organizations access to IDP sites. Security forces sometimes carried out military operations near IDP sites, increasing the risk of casualties and damage and restricting freedom of movement. Impoverished IDPs were highly susceptible to human trafficking networks. Additionally, despite a government policy of free public education, significant numbers of children in displaced families were unable to attend school because of unofficial school fees and transportation expenses.
At times the government encouraged IDPs to return home, but they were often reluctant to do so for security or welfare reasons.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: No comprehensive legislation provides for granting refugee status or asylum. The Department of Justice’s Refugee and Stateless Persons Protections Unit (RSPPU) determines which applicants qualify as refugees in accordance with an established, accessible system that appeared to provide basic due process.
The Department of Justice is responsible for statelessness determinations of persons born in the country and of newly arrived persons. After an applicant files for a determination of statelessness, deportation or exclusion proceedings against the applicant and dependents are suspended, and the applicant may be released from detention. As of July, eight stateless persons were in the country, three of whom were classified as refugees.
Stateless persons may be naturalized. There were no known cases of social discrimination against stateless persons or limits on their access to public services.
Under the 2014 joint initiative to register persons of Indonesian descent at risk of statelessness in Southern Mindanao, the Philippine and Indonesian governments collectively registered 8,745 persons. As of October, 95 percent of those registered have had their citizenship confirmed. The two governments jointly reaffirmed the provision of consular assistance to both documented and undocumented migrants of Indonesian descent.