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 2019 for 12 (of 24 total) senators, all congressional representatives, and local government leaders were seen as generally free and fair, despite some reports of violence and vote buying. The ruling party and allies won all 12 Senate seats and maintained an approximately two-thirds majority in the 306-seat House of Representatives.
The Philippine National Police 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 (armed forces), which reports to the Department of National Defense, is responsible for external security but also carries out domestic security functions in regions where the government assesses a high incidence of terrorist or separatist insurgent activity, particularly the Mindanao region. The two agencies share responsibility for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. The national police Special Action Force is responsible for urban counterterrorism operations. Governors, mayors, and other local officials have considerable influence over local police units, including appointment of top provincial and municipal police officers and the provision of resources. The government continued to support and arm civilian militias. The armed forces controlled Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units, while Civilian Volunteer Organizations fell under national police 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 Civilian Volunteer Organization and Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit members into those armies. Civilian control over some security forces was not fully effective. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: 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; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in a conflict, including unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by terrorists and groups in rebellion against the government; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the use of criminal libel laws to punish journalists; high-level and widespread government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic human rights organizations; and threats and violence against labor activists.
The government investigated a limited number of reported human rights abuses, including abuses by its own forces, paramilitary forces, 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 other 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. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. 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. These actions were at times investigated and prosecuted, although there were credible allegations that charges were often leveled for political reasons.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution explicitly provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government sometimes respected this right. Threats and actions by government, allied groups, and powerful individuals against journalists, media organizations, government critics, and others continued.
Freedom of Expression: On the surface individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest. Observers and NGOs, however, stated that President Duterte’s public tirades against individuals, organizations, and international bodies who criticized his policies continued to have a chilling effect on free speech and expression. A Social Weather Stations survey released in March noted that six in 10 Filipinos agreed that it is “dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical” of the administration “even if it is the truth.”
NGOs and opposition lawmakers also continued to express concern that recent legislation, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act and The Bayanihan “To Heal As One” Act (both enacted in 2020), could be used to suppress speech using broad provisions against inciting terrorism and spreading false information, respectively. In May several media organizations signed a joint statement saying the Anti-Terrorism Act will “reduce this country to a field of submissive and unquestioning individuals, to be herded like sheep by the police and military.”
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Media generally remained free, active, and able to voice criticism of the government, despite the chilling effect caused by pressure on specific major media organizations.
Two media entities continued to face what appeared to many as politically motivated restrictions and legal challenges: online news website Rappler and broadcast giant ABS-CBN. President Duterte publicly called out both organizations for alleged wrongdoings: Rappler for its supposed reporting bias and foreign ownership and ABS-CBN for alleged crimes, including failure to show Duterte’s political advertisements during the 2016 presidential election, violations of labor laws, unpaid taxes, foreign ownership, and financial irregularities.
Many observers believed government pressure on Rappler, including legal and administrative actions, was in response to Rappler’s critical coverage of the government. Its Chief Executive Officer Maria Ressa and other staff were subjected to at least 11 cases and complaints since Duterte came into office. The administration also issued at least 10 arrest warrants against her in the last two years. In March she took the witness stand for the first time on tax evasion charges. Three libel cases against Rappler were dropped in the year to October.
In May, ABS-CBN marked the first anniversary of the shutdown of its broadcast operations following the nonrenewal of its broadcast franchise and a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission halting its operations. The network was forced to close regional stations across the country that offered independent information to human rights activists and communities. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility Executive Director Melinda De Jesus called it “an unprecedented act of state power which struck at the core of the media system …, leaving the community shaken by the experience.” “If this can happen to ABS-CBN, then it can happen to any of the others,” she said. Calling it a “contagion,” De Jesus noted that Duterte’s “animosity toward the free press spread among government officials at all levels, who adopted the president’s own bullying stance, initiating an array of actions against the press.”
France-based Reporters Without Borders included Duterte in its “Press Freedom Predators” list and declared, “local media quickly became collateral victims of his brutal methods, which tolerate no criticism or even nuanced coverage of his policies.”
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from individual politicians, government authorities, and powerful private persons critical of their reporting.
According to Freedom House, “impunity remains the norm for violent crimes against activists and journalists” in the country. On July 22, radio commentator Renante Cortes was shot and killed outside his station in Cebu, an incident which police stated was most likely because of his “hard-hitting commentaries.”
In December 2020 authorities arrested Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and six others for illegal possession of firearms and explosives. In February a court dismissed the case and voided the search warrant. Manila Today was among media entities red-tagged by the administration.
Also in February retired general Antonio Parlade, Jr. attacked Inquirer.net journalist Tetch Torres-Tupas for her story about efforts by imprisoned activists’ from the indigenous Aetas community on Luzon to join in a case against the Anti-Terrorism Act at the Supreme Court. In their petition, the Aetas prisoners alleged that members of the military tortured them for six days. Parlade, in a Facebook post, said Torres-Tupas could be “aiding terrorism by spreading lies” and that her story could be grounds for a case against her. Reporters covering the justice beat condemned Parlade’s threat and called it “utterly unacceptable.”
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility stated that red-tagging “endangers victims, including journalists, of being hauled to court on trumped up charges.” It noted that of the 51 cases of intimidation from June 2016 to April 2021, 30 were incidents of red-tagging. It added that at least five incidents of surveillance were recorded, which includes police visits and vehicle tailing.
The International Center for Journalists stated Duterte’s verbal attacks against female journalists, particularly Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa, created an environment that encouraged online attacks against them, including death and rape threats and misogynistic abuse.
In the provinces local media also faced unique challenges. In February, Visayas-based radio station Baskog Radyo sought an injunction against the Capiz provincial government’s order to demolish its broadcast antenna. Station manager Jay Layapiez said the order was clearly “intimidation, muzzling of speech, and the suppression of media from fulfilling their duty and public service” due to the station’s critical reporting on alleged corruption in the province.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: News organizations generally were spared official censorship attempts, but journalists and media watchdogs noted several instances of alleged government interference, with the pandemic also limiting media’s access to reliable information.
Reporters Without Borders stated that along with online harassment campaigns, cyberattacks were launched against the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and alternative news sites “in order to block them.” Sweden-based digital forensics group Quirium Media Foundation revealed in June that it recorded “brief but frequent denial attacks” by the government against alternative news organizations Bulatlat and Altermidya. Bulatlat declared it was not surprised by the results but was “angered that taxpayer money is being spent to bring down our website and to deny our readers access to our reportage.”
In April the Presidential Communications Operations Office admitted it directed all state-run media to portray the country as “faring better than many countries in addressing the pandemic.” In August the private national newspaper Daily Tribune signed an agreement with the government information agency to disseminate “accurate, timely, and relevant information to the public.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Laws stipulate criminal penalties for libel, which authorities have used to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against journalists.
The National Union of Journalists called for the decriminalization of libel, saying the law “creates a chilling effect discouraging journalists to report truthful, relevant, and critical information.”
Except for 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 was pushback against the efforts of social media platforms such as Facebook to remove false or incendiary posts and deny access to malicious users.
Two lawmakers, representatives Michael Defensor and Bernadette Herrera, questioned Facebook’s efforts to block suspected troll farms that were supposedly spreading disinformation. Herrera said Facebook’s removal of content “tends to undermine the freedom of expression that is guaranteed under the Philippine Constitution.” Defensor said, “considering Facebook’s huge influence in our country’s moral, political, national security, and also in securing private corporate interests, there is a need to clarify its information censorship methods.”
The clamor to investigate Facebook came after the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2021 Digital News Report revealed that almost nine in 10 Filipinos relied on online platforms as their source of news during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook was the top source of news in the study and also the key source of online misinformation.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no national government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events; however, the government kept some schools for indigenous Lumad people in Mindanao closed (see section 6, Indigenous Peoples).
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The government, however, continued to restrict peaceful assembly in response to COVID-19 public-health concerns. Observers alleged that the government invoked public-health concerns for political purposes, that is, to limit the ability of activists to assemble.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government imposed graduated quarantine measures restricting movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-country Movement: Public health restrictions on movement varied from place to place depending on the scale of the COVID-19 threat. The restrictions often prohibited individuals from using certain types of public transportation or traveling outside their homes except to perform necessary activities, such as purchasing food or seeking medical care. There were credible allegations (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.) that some police reacted abusively to violations of COVID-19 movement restrictions.
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 seeks 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 Abu Sayyaf Group, 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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as of June, more than 135,900 persons were displaced and in need of durable solutions, most in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Of those, 114,156 were displaced by armed conflict, 14,949 by natural disasters, 4,077 by crime or violence, and 2,718 by clan feuds.
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.
At times the government encouraged IDPs to return home, but they were often reluctant to do so for security or welfare reasons.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees or asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. As of June, UNHCR reported 811 recognized refugees in the country.
Access to Asylum: No comprehensive legislation provides for granting refugee status or asylum. The Department of Justice’s Refugee and Stateless Persons Protections Unit determines which applicants qualify as refugees in accordance with an established, accessible system that appeared to provide basic due process. From January to June, the Refugee and Stateless Persons Protection Unit received 120 applications for recognition as a refugee, five of which were granted.