A statement from the Princeton Filipino Community and the broader Fil-Am student community calling for democratic civil liberties in the Philippines.
On June 15, 2020, Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and Princeton class of ’86, and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former Rappler reporter, were found guilty of cyber libel. Ressa, though free on bail, faces up to six years in prison and may be sentenced to 100 more, pending further prosecutions and investigations. This ruling is the latest instance of a long string of attacks on Rappler and on press freedoms in the Philippines in general. It also strikes a personal note for us, as Pinoys who study at Princeton and friends of Maria Ressa.
We are thrilled that The Daily Princetonian Editorial Board picked up this story, and we wholeheartedly agree with their statements. We denounce the charges against Ressa and Santos as a violation of the human right to free speech, as well as a direct threat to the future of democracy in the Philippines.
As members of the Princeton Filipino Community, we would like to take this moment to provide further context about Filipino current events, reflect on our country’s experiences with dictatorship and struggle for representation, and express our continued hope for the future of the Philippines and for democracy.
Ressa’s guilty verdict was not the only egregious attack on Philippine press freedoms in the past weeks. On May 5, ABS-CBN — the largest Filipino broadcasting network — was ordered by the national telecommunications agency to shut down. President Duterte has threatened the franchise for years over alleged bias during the 2016 presidential election, as well as some critical news coverage. ABS-CBN has been forced to go off-air only one other time in its history: the declaration of martial law and seizure of the company by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. This strikingly similar act of censorship and erosion of democracy almost 50 years later is unacceptable.
Furthermore, a new anti-terror bill was signed by President Duterte last Friday, brushing off pleas from various civil society groups and local governments to veto it, thus enshrining in law one of the greatest crises for civil liberties in the Philippines since the time of Marcos. The legislation ambiguously criminalizes incitement of terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations … without taking any direct part in the commission of terrorism,” which has been widely criticized for its potential for abuse. It also allows for warrantless arrest, up to 24-day detentions of suspects without charge, and the creation of an extra-judicial anti-terror council, among other similarly unsettling measures. It is a clear move to exploit a public health crisis to grab power and completely stifle legitimate dissent while the populace under lockdown has limited ability to resist. The anti-terror law will take effect on July 18.
Despite these consistent attacks on civil rights, along with his track record of extrajudicial killings, blasphemy, sexism, and more, President Duterte is still broadly popular within the Philippines. But his electoral success does not mean that the Philippines in the present day is truly democratic. Much like President Trump, President Duterte has continuously denounced the work of journalists who contradict him as “fake news.” Meanwhile, Duterte and his supporters have weaponized social media and overwhelmed these independent reporters with hate mail and death threats, using armies of trolls and bots.
Democracy, by nature, rests on a plurality of voices that seek the truth, pursue justice, and make compromises to create a better life for all. Therefore, it cannot exist in a country where there is no freedom to hold the people in power accountable. And Ressa’s verdict, among so many other things, demonstrates that today in the Philippines, it is illegal to hold the people in power accountable. It is illegal to speak out against injustice.
Filipino democracy is in grave danger. But we strongly believe that even in these times, there is reason for hope. In 1986, over 2 million Filipinos blocked Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the main highway in Manila, during the People Power Revolution, which triggered the removal of the dictator Marcos. And far before then, in the late 1800s, writer and national hero José Rizal inspired Filipinos through his writing to rebel against the Spanish colonists. The resulting independence movement led to the First Philippine Republic, which was proclaimed in 1898 under the first democratic constitution in all of Asia.
Essentially, the desire for just representation is part of our heritage. What is currently happening in the Philippines does not mean that democracy is a doomed project. It means that democracy is fragile, and we must all fight to keep it alive, whenever and wherever it is threatened. Even if those who wrest away our hard-earned rights and freedoms succeed today, we will reclaim them in time, no matter how long it takes.
We now look to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which has already received six petitions against the anti-terror law from various groups of law professors, government representatives, and civil society organizations. At least seven other groups are expected to file petitions. We are also vigilantly monitoring the hearings for the ABS-CBN franchise renewal, which will determine the fate of the franchise’s 11,000 employees during this global health crisis.
To Ressa, thank you for your constant bravery, hard work, and belief in the Philippines. You have never retreated from your post. You are a role model for all of us. We will do our best to advocate for you from Princeton, and we hope that one day we can meet up again and chat over a nice meal of pancit and lumpia.
One way you can help out is by donating to Rappler’s investigative fund, as they continue to face court cases initiated by the government. You can also lend your support to efforts for a Philippine Human Rights Act, which would suspend U.S. military aid to the Philippines until human rights violations by Philippine security forces end. For more information and action items, check out these compilation sites: Para sa Pinas and Junk Terror Law.
In solidarity with Ressa and the civic liberties she is fighting to uphold,
Sabrina Reguyal ’22 and Ysabel Ayala ’21
The Princeton Filipino Community
Ananya Agustin Malhotra ’20
Monique Legaspi ’22
Jeremy Pulmano ’21
Jasmine Rivers ’23
Jona Mojados ’20
Kateryn McReynolds ’20
Gabbie Acot ’21
Agnes Robang ’22
Hector Afonso Cruz ’20
Clariza Macaspac ’23
Maricar Almeda ’22
Miguel Opeña ’22
Lourdes Santiago ’21
Sero Toriano Parel, G3
Andie Ayala ’19
Mench Santelices ’22
Mandy Qua ’23
Bianca Catoto ’21
Colin Vega ’23
Thomas Jankovic ’20
Zachary Lopez ’23
GJ Sevillano ’19
Justin Ramos ’19
Nafisa Ahmed ’22
Arianna Borromeo ’24
Cristina Hain ’21
Kirsten Pardo ’24
Non-Princeton Filipinx organizations who sign in solidarity (signatures of club representatives included)
Kasama: The Filipinx Club at Yale
Anna Mikhaila Villamor Aller ’22
Kasamahan at the University of San Francisco
Frances Jullienne Capupus ’22
Liga Filipina of Columbia University
Megan May Rivera ’21
Fordham Lincoln Center’s FLOW
Regine Anastacio ’21
Troy Philippines at the University of Southern California
*Prefer not to be named
Filipinos Uniting Students in Other Nations at CUNY Baruch
Kyunghee Hori ’22
Karen Wong ’23
*Prefer not to be named
Northwestern University Kaibigan: Filipino Student Association
*Prefer not to be named