MANILA (UPDATE) - Filipino bishops denounced the government's "pattern of intimidation" as they expressed concern over the new anti-terror law and cited such actions as shutting ABS-CBN down and harassing media personalities with multiple charges.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, in a pastoral letter dated July 16, said it was "still in disbelief" at how government fast-tracked the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, while the country was battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government "did not even seem to care that many of the people they represent" were against the law, citing the opposition of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, business sector, lawyers, labor groups, and many others," said the letter prepared by CBCP acting president and Caloocan bishop Pablo Virgilio David.
"The dissenting voices were strong but they remained unheeded. None of the serious concerns that they expressed about this legislative measure seemed to be of any consequence to them," it added.
The CBCP said the government's statement that those who are not terrorists have nothing to fear, was similar to the Chinese government's message to Hong Kong residents following the implementation of its national security law.
"We know full well that it is one thing to be actually involved in a crime and another thing to be merely suspected or accused of committing a crime," David said.
He cited the priests and bishops who were falsely accused of sedition and inciting to sedition by the police, Sen. Leila de Lima who remains detained on alleged drug charges, and the "chilling effect" of ABS-CBN's closure, among others.
"Is it not evident to us how this pattern of intimidation creates an atmosphere detrimental to the freedom of expression in our country?" David wrote.
The CBCP said warrantless detentions under the law also brings to mind "initial moves in 1972 that eventually led to the fall of democracy and the rise of a dictatorial regime that terrorized the country for 14 years."
"Knowing how, in just the recent past, the law has been used too many times as a weapon to suppress legitimate dissent and opposition, we cannot but share in the apprehensions expressed by the lawyers and ordinary citizens that filed the petition against the said infamous law before the Supreme Court," the letter reads.
"While a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water."
The CBCP, however, believes that there remains in state agencies "many people of good will whose hearts are in the right places, and who remain objective and independent minded."
"They are an important element to the strengthening of our government institutions, and are an essential key to a stable and functional democratic system."
"Will the highest level of our Judiciary assert its independence, or will they, too, succumb to political pressure?"
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
In a statement, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Atty. Salvador Panelo said with its recent statement, the CBCP seemed to have violated the doctrine of separation of Church and State.
"The letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) published today, July 19, appears to have violated the doctrine of the separation of Church and State as mandated by the Constitution in Section 6, Article thereof: “ [t]he separation of church snd state shall be inviolable," he said.
"Even if it is not deemed to be a violation thereof, we note that it parrots the detractors favored false narrative that it is violative of the Constitution; that it allows warrantless arrest and wiretapping of suspected terrorists; that it sends a chilling effect on those exercising their freedom of speech; that there is a pattern of intimidation being undertaken by the government citing the case against Senator De Lima and the "shutdown" of ABS- CBN, and that the people oppose it," Panelo added.
Panelo also said the Church's call to its followers to pray for the Judiciary when it decides on petitions against the Anti-Terror Act also exerts religious influence on the Supreme Court.
"It asks: "Will the highest level of our Judiciary assert its independence, or will they, too, succumb to political pressure?" Such advocacy, coupled with its call to its faithful followers to prayer, effectively exerts religious influence or pressure on Supreme Court to decide against a national law designed to combat the global crime of terrorism and to secure the safety of the Filipino people," he said.
He, likewise, urged the CBCP to trust the judicial system, as well as the government, in implementing the new law.
"The CBCP only has to trust our judicial system given that adopting an opposite mindset only undermines the legal institutions," Panelo said.
"The CBCP likens us to "the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water." For its education, we have been in a far worse situation for years due to the favorable treatment which people in power or of influence have been receiving from past governments. The present dispensation has taken us out of this environment through the President's political will in enforcing the law equally to all, bar none, including those managed in the past to be immune therefrom or untouchable," he added.