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Philippines

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture, and evidence obtained through its use is inadmissible in court. According to the Commission on Human Rights, however, members of the security forces and police were accused of routinely abusing and sometimes torturing suspects and detainees. Common forms of abuse during arrest and interrogation reportedly included electric shock, cigarette burns, and suffocation.

As of June the Commission on Human Rights had investigated 27 cases of alleged torture involving 34 victims; it suspected police involvement in 22 of the cases. The NGO Task Force Detainees of the Philippines monitored 16 torture cases from March to June, mostly for alleged COVID-19 quarantine violations. On March 20, the start of the COVID-19 community quarantine, a village chief in Santa Cruz, Laguna, threatened to shoot five arrested curfew violators if they did not agree to be locked inside a dog cage for 30 minutes. On March 24, photographs of arrested curfew violators sitting on chairs in the middle of a basketball court and under the sun went viral after a village official from San Isidro, Paranaque, who posted the photographs, put a caption “Everyone caught violating the curfew, we will place here.”

NGOs and media reported local governments used psychological abuse, including shaming, as punishment for community quarantine curfew violators. Under the torture statutes, the public parading or shaming of a person is illegal when used to undermine a person’s dignity and morale. In April village officials in Pandacaqui, Pampanga, detained three members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community for curfew violations. The officials told the detainees to dance provocatively and kiss each other on the lips while being streamed live on Facebook.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Human rights groups continued to express concern about abuses committed by the national police and other security forces and noted little progress in reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations. The armed forces Human Rights Office monitored and reviewed alleged human rights abuses involving members of the military. From January through October, no extrajudicial killings, murders, or forced disappearances were identified or investigated by the office.

Human rights groups continued to express concern about the contribution of corruption to abuses committed by the national police and other security forces and noted little progress in implementing and enforcing reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations.

The national police’s institutional deficiencies and the public perception that corruption in the police was endemic continued. The PNP’s Internal Affairs Service remained largely ineffective. In October the new PNP chief Cascolan reported 4,591 police officers were dismissed from service for serious violations, 7,888 were suspended, and 846 were demoted in rank, as part of the organization’s internal cleansing program. Although the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service claimed manpower and resource limitations hampered its investigations into deaths resulting from police operations, it asserted the majority of police operations were legitimate, lawful police actions. The PNP’s Counter-Intelligence Task Force also monitored police personnel suspected of illegal activities.

From January to August, complainants reported five cases of alleged military and law enforcement involvement in human rights abuses to the Office of the Ombudsman, including killings, injuries, unlawful arrest, and torture. A majority of the cases were against low-ranking officials. As of October all cases remained open pending additional investigation.

Efforts continued to reform and professionalize the national police through improved training, expanded community outreach, and salary increases. Human rights modules were included in all national police career courses, and the police Human Rights Affairs Office conducted routine training nationwide on human rights responsibilities in policing. Several NGOs suggested that national police training courses should have a follow-up mechanism to determine the effectiveness of each session.

The armed forces Human Rights Office monitored and reviewed alleged human rights abuses involving members of the military. From January through July, the office identified and investigated no extrajudicial killings or murders or forced disappearances.

The military routinely provided human rights training to its members, augmented by training from the Commission on Human Rights. Successful completion of these courses is required to complete basic training and for induction, promotion, reassignment, and selection for foreign schooling opportunities. According to armed force’s human rights office, internal human rights training is conducted from the general headquarters level down to battalion units, totaling hundreds of training exercise annually. From January to August, various military service units conducted human rights-related training programs, seminars, or workshops with the Commission on Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other NGOs.

The Congressional Commission on Appointments determines whether senior military officers selected for promotion have a history of human rights violations and solicits input from the Commission on Human Rights and other agencies through background investigations. The congressional commission may withhold a promotion indefinitely if it uncovers a record of abuses. Violations, however, do not preclude promotion.

Government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption in the security forces were poorly resourced and remained largely ineffective. Potential witnesses often were unable to obtain protection. The Commission on Human Rights operated a small witness protection program that was overburdened by witnesses to killings in the antidrug campaign. The loss of family income due to the relocation of a family member was also, in some cases, a barrier to witnesses’ testimony. The Office of the Ombudsman also reported that witnesses often failed to come forward or to cooperate in police abuse or corruption cases. This problem sometimes followed pressure on witnesses and their families or arose from an expectation of compensation for their cooperation.

Reports of rape and sexual abuse of women in police or protective custody continued. In March, two national police officers were charged with sexual assault of two women detained at the Marikina City police station on drug charges. The women claimed that the officers raped them during interrogation and that they reported the rape to the duty jailor upon return to their detention cell. In October the national police’s Women and Children Protection Center charged police Lieutenant Colonel Jigger Noceda with sexual assault for allegedly sexually assaulting former Ozamiz City vice mayor Nova Parojinog at least twice. Parojinog had been in police custody since 2017 on drug charges and was still awaiting a judgement in her case.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary; although the government generally respected judicial independence, pressure, threats, and intimidation directed at the judiciary from various sources were reported by NGOs during the year. Six lawyers were killed as of July. Corruption through nepotism, personal connections, and sometimes bribery continued to result in relative impunity for wealthy or influential offenders. Insufficient personnel, inefficient processes, and long procedural delays also hindered the judicial system. These factors contributed to widespread skepticism that the criminal justice system delivered due process and equal justice.

Trials took place as a series of separate hearings, often months apart, as witnesses and court time became available, contributing to lengthy delays. There was a widely recognized need for more prosecutors, judges, and courtrooms. As of June 30, approximately one-third of authorized bench positions (563 positions) were unfilled. Sharia (Islamic law) court positions continued to be particularly difficult to fill because applicants must be members of both the Sharia Bar and the Integrated Bar. The 56 authorized district and circuit Sharia courts do not have criminal jurisdiction. Training for sharia court prosecutors was brief and considered inadequate.

The Supreme Court continued efforts to provide speedier trials, reduce judicial malfeasance, increase judicial branch efficiency, and raise public confidence in the judiciary. It continued to implement guidelines to accelerate resolution of cases in which the maximum penalty would not exceed six years in prison.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial. Trials were generally public, but not timely, and judicial impartiality was widely questioned. The law requires that all persons accused of crimes be informed of the charges against them and grants rights to counsel, adequate time to prepare a defense, and a speedy and public trial before a judge. No criminal proceeding goes forward against a defendant without the presence of a lawyer. The law presumes defendants are innocent. They have the right to confront witnesses against them, be present at their trial, present evidence in their favor, appeal convictions, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The court may appoint an interpreter if necessary. If the court’s interpreter makes serious mistakes, a party may challenge the interpretation. The government generally implemented these requirements, except for the right to a speedy trial.

Although the law provides that cases should be resolved within three months to two years, depending on the court, trials effectively had no time limits. Government officials estimated it took an average of five to six years to obtain a decision.

Authorities respected a defendant’s right to representation by a lawyer, but poverty often inhibited access to effective legal counsel. The Public Attorney’s Office, which reports to the Department of Justice, did not have the necessary resources to fulfill its constitutional mandate and used its limited resources to represent indigent defendants at trial rather than during arraignments or pretrial hearings. During pretrial hearings courts may appoint any lawyer present in the courtroom to provide on-the-spot counsel to the accused.

Sentencing decisions were not always consistent with legal guidelines, and judicial decisions sometimes appeared arbitrary.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The government generally respected citizens’ privacy, although leaders of communist and leftist organizations and rural-based NGOs complained of routine surveillance and harassment. Authorities routinely relied on informant systems to obtain information on terrorist suspects and in the drug war. The reliability of information on illegal narcotics activities gained from these sources remained highly questionable. Although the government generally respected restrictions on search and seizure within private homes, searches without warrants continued. Judges generally declared evidence obtained illegally to be inadmissible.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution explicitly provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government sometimes respected this right. Government threats and actions against media outlets, journalists, and government critics continued, however, and polls suggested that most citizens considered it dangerous to publish information critical of the administration.

Freedom of Speech: On the surface individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest. Civil society organizations, however, stated that President Duterte’s public attacks on individuals and international bodies who criticized his policies continued to have a chilling effect on free speech and expression and that laws were increasingly misused against critics of his administration. Civil society organizations expressed concern that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, signed into law on July 3, could be used to suppress speech, including through broad provisions against inciting terrorism. The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, signed on March 24, punishes individuals for creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information about COVID-19 on social media and other platforms. Public officials continued to file criminal libel and cyber libel complaints against private citizens.

The armed conflict between the government and the NPA, the armed wing of the CPP, is more than a half-century old. The practice of accusing groups and individuals of having ties to the CPP-NPA, or red-tagging, increased significantly after the peace talks broke down in 2017 and President Duterte labeled the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization. According to human rights groups, red-tagging often involves government officials labeling human rights advocates, unions, religious groups, academics, and media organizations as “legal fronts” of the insurgency, allegedly to silence criticism of the government or intimidate opponents in local disputes. Leftist and human rights activists continued to report harassment by persons whom they suspected to be military or government agents, and some red-tagged activists were killed.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media generally 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.

Two major media outfits, however, faced outright restrictions and legal challenges: online news website Rappler and broadcast giant ABS-CBN. The president publicly called out both organizations for alleged wrongdoing: Rappler for its supposed reporting bias and foreign ownership, and ABS-CBN for a number of alleged crimes, including failure to show Duterte’s political advertisements during the 2016 presidential elections, violations of labor laws, foreign ownership, and financial irregularities. Reporters without Borders reported a “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against Rappler and “threats and intimidation by government agencies and institutions that support Duterte” against ABS-CBN.

Rappler continued to be a target of substantial pressure, including legal and administrative actions, which some observers attributed to its critical coverage of the government. In June, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of cyber libel over a 2012 Rappler story claiming the late Supreme Court justice Renato Corona used vehicles belonging to influential businessmen, including plaintiff Wilfredo Keng. Ressa and Santos posted bail and appealed the conviction. Keng filed a second cyber libel complaint against Ressa in February for her 2019 tweet of screenshots of a now deleted Philippine Star story linking the businessman to the murder of a former Manila councilor. The article at the heart of the original cyber libel complaint was published in May 2012. The cybercrime law was passed in September 2012, but the court concluded that the law still applied because Rappler updated the story in 2014 due to what Rappler claimed was a typographical error. The statute of limitations is also subject to contention (see Libel/Slander Laws below).

In July, in a nominally unrelated case, Ressa was arraigned on a tax evasion charge related to Rappler’s issuance of Philippine depository receipts.

ABS-CBN was forced to stop television broadcasting on May 7 following a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission after the network’s 25-year broadcast franchise license expired. The commission also issued two cease-and-desist orders against broadcasts on the media giant’s two other properties: ABS-CBN TV Plus and satellite service subsidiary Sky Direct. On July 10, a House of Representatives committee voted to deny ABS-CBN’s application for a new 25-year franchise. A special technical working group created by the committee said ABS-CBN’s license did not merit renewal because of the company’s supposed bias, failure to regularize employees, and the alleged dual citizenship of its chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III. Several lawmakers filed resolutions seeking investigations into ABS-CBN, including the ownership of its 52,000-square-foot Manila headquarters, an alleged $32.5-million loan write-off from the Development Bank of the Philippines, and its block time agreement with Amcara Broadcasting Corporation. The network had reportedly laid off approximately 5,000 of its 11,000 employees by September due to the shutdown.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from politicians and government authorities critical of their reporting. A July survey from polling company Social Weather Stations showed that 51 percent of the country’s residents agreed with the statement that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

As of October the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom NGO, reported that two journalists were killed during the year. On May 5, unidentified gunmen killed radio journalist Cornelio Pepino in Dumaguete City. Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo had sued Pepino for defamation, but the radio anchor was acquitted.

A December 2019 report by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, a group of media NGOs and news organizations, also detailed the “unyielding reign of impunity” since President Duterte took office. It said online journalists were the most attacked media group, followed by radio, print, and then television.

In December 2019 a local court handed down a landmark ruling on the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 32 journalists and 26 other persons died and which was dubbed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the single deadliest international event for journalists in history. After 10 years brothers Zaldy and Andal Ampatuan, Jr., along with 28 coaccused, were found guilty of 57 counts of murder. As accessories to the crime, 15 others were convicted. The government continued to pursue approximately 80 suspects who remained at large.

In July the Catanduanes provincial legislature declared local radio anchor Ramil Soliveres persona non grata for posting about an unnamed council member missing a health committee hearing. During a speech the local official branded him a “fake news” media worker and called him a “male prostitute” while handing out topless photographs taken from the journalist’s personal Facebook account.

On September 14, two unidentified motorcycle-riding gunmen shot and killed television commentator Jobert Bercasio in Sorsogon City. Bercasio had reported on deforestation and illegal mining in the region and posted a Facebook photograph an hour before his death allegedly showing illegal mining at a local quarry.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: News organizations generally were spared censorship attempts, but media watchdogs noted several instances of alleged government interference.

With the nonrenewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, the network was forced to move most of its programs online and close down its provincial television and radio stations and its current affairs division; the latter produced political shows and documentaries. Although the president’s office repeatedly distanced the president from the ABS-CBN shutdown, in a July 13 speech to troops in Jolo, he called out ABS-CBN again for allegedly ruining him. His communications team edited the video of the speech to remove any mention of the network, but netizens and journalists discovered the edit. President Duterte also attacked ABS-CBN and its owners during his 2020 state of the nation address.

In March the journalists’ union denounced moves by the Presidential Communications Operations Office and its regional offices to require journalists to seek accreditation to cover the COVID-19 crisis even outside the Luzon quarantine area, calling it a “clear overstretch of the agency’s authority.”

In July police officers confiscated and destroyed thousands of copies of the Pinoy Weekly magazine in Bulacan, calling it “illegal” because it “teaches people to fight the government.” The journalists’ union characterized it as a “clear example of dangers the Filipino people face” from the “vague provisions” of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

Libel/Slander Laws: Laws stipulate criminal penalties for libel, which authorities used to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against journalists. The statute of limitations for libel in the revised penal code lapses after one year. In the case of Rappler, however, a local court and the Department of Justice stated the statute of limitations should be 12 years because it was “considered as a more serious offense” under the cyber libel law. Experts and legal groups such as the Concerned Lawyers Civil Liberties branded this ruling “unconstitutional.”

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. Beginning in March, however, the government implemented restrictions on peaceful assembly in response to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

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