'Legal, safe': Groups to defy ban, gather in protest on Duterte's 5th SONA

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 25 2020 01:10 PM | Updated as of Jul 25 2020 05:56 PM

Protesters gather at UP Diliman on June 12, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA - Defying a government ban, several groups said Saturday they would push through with protests when President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his 5th State of the Nation Address, as they asserted the "urgent need" to physically gather and express indignation against recent state policies. 

Vowing to observe health protocols, groups from several sectors are set to hold a protest dubbed "SONAgkaisa" on University Avenue at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City on Monday, continuing an annual tradition of holding mass actions as an alternative to the president's yearly report to the nation.

This despite a Quezon City ban on protests and directives of the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 against holding mass actions, citing the continuing coronavirus threat. 

The protest will push through under the shadow of a recently passed anti-terror law, which government critics have described as "draconian" for provisions they say may be abused to clamp down on legitimate dissent.

Protest leaders said IATF guidelines may not trump Constitutionally people's guaranteed rights: freedom of speech, expression and assembly. 

"Gusto nating sabihin sa kanila, ang guidelines ng IATF cannot supersede the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of assembly and expression. Constitutional right natin," said Sister Mary John Mananzan of the Movement Against Tyranny in an online presser. 

(We want to tell them, IATF guidelines cannot supersede the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of assembly and expression. That's our constitutional rights.)

"Ang pinagbabawalan ay non-essential (gathering). Our SONA rally is absolutely not non-essential. It is absolutely essential. Kasi napakaimportante na we should express our Constitutional rights sa annual SONA para marinig natin ang boses ng tao," she said. 

(What's not allowed are non-essential gatherings. Our SONA rally is absolutely not non-essential. It is absolutely essential. Because it is very important that we should express our Constitutional rights during the annual SONA so we'll hear the voice of the people.)

Organizers said all participants will observe health protocols to prevent COVID-19 transmission, including physical distancing and the use of face masks. 

"It is legal and safe," Mananzan said. 

Law dean Chel Diokno, among prominent opposition voices, said the IATF's move to bar protests is "prior restraint." He asserted that the Supreme Court has held the primacy of basic freedoms of assembly, speech and expression, and so people have the right to gather in a mass action. 

"Basta't mayroon tayong social distancing, basta't suot natin 'yung ating face masks, may karapatan tayong magsama-sama, may karapatan tayong ipaabot sa ating pamahalaan ang ating saloobin at ating mga hinaing," he said. 

(As long as we have social distancing, as long as we're wearing masks, we have the right to gather, we have the right to air our sentiments and grievances to government.) 

Several issues expected to take prominence during Monday's SONA protests are the recent passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, now facing over a dozen challenges at the Supreme Court, the ABS-CBN shutdown, and government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has drawn heavy criticism over its militarized approach and punitive quarantine enforcement. 

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Secretary General Renato Reyes said groups have coordinated with UP Diliman for the protest and that it needs no permit from the local government. 

Several protests have been held at the same venue in recent months. 

He said government should stop weaponizing IATF's quarantine guidelines to repress protest actions.

"Dapat igalang ng PNP ang karapatang magtipon at kalayaang magpahayag. Madaming dahilan at lubhang kailangan na may physical protest tayo sa Lunes," he said at the presser.

(The Philippine National Police should respect people's right to assembly and freedom of speech. There are many reasons and there is an urgent need to have a physical protest on Monday.) 

Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, meanwhile, asserted in a virtual briefing on state TV that mass gatherings are prohibited because of the pandemic. 

"Any form of mass gathering is prohibited, kasama na po diyan ‘yong mga (including) mass gatherings and demonstrations so we are simply cascading the decision of the IATF," he said. 

“This is in relation to the quarantine, to the health protocols implemented by the government because of the pandemic," he said. 

Reyes, meanwhile, cited an irony in the directive, noting how government had gathered together thousands of stranded individuals at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on Friday, raising concerns of a contagion.