National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon ordered the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to block the access of at least 30 websites of different groups – including alternative media outlets and progressive groups such as Bulatlat, Save our Schools Network and Pinoy Weekley – due to alleged links to terrorist organizations. Later, however, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) said that the NTC has no power to block websites based merely on hearsay or “extend the scope of the Anti-Terrorism Council’s (ATC) designation order to ‘affiliates’ at the nearest invocation of terrorism.”
The ATC was established under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA) and consists of Senate and government representatives. It can declare individuals and organizations as “terrorists”, even in the absence of any evidence. Esperon used only previous ATC resolutions for the said allegations which designated them as terrorist affiliated groups with alleged links to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the National People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front (NDF).
The IBP stressed that the only effect of the designation of groups as “terrorists” – based on the controversial ATA – is the freezing of assets by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). It further stated that the National Security Council (NSC) should file appropriate cases and request for designation instead of “resorting to censorial shortcuts.” Former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio affirmed IBP’s statement by stressing that the NTC cannot unilaterally shut down or restrict the access to a website without a court order.
Progressive news outlet Bulatlat, which considers itself as the longest-running online media outfit, issued a complaint against NTC and NSC, urging the court to stop and nullify the regulator’s order. The website claimed that the viewership of its content went down by 43 percent. Bulatlat’s request to issue a temporary restraining order against NTC’s decision was rejected by QC Regional Trial Court Branch 306. The court’s rejection was appealed by the news outlet on July 22, 2022, which was then granted by the QC Court on August 11, 2022.
Journalists rely on Bulatlat’s media coverage for alternative views on issues such as agrarian reform, human rights and the environment. Some human rights workers stated that the blocking order made it difficult for them to conduct human rights research, also because many of Bulatlat’s reports are usually not covered by mainstream media.
The disputed shutdown of websites came only a few days before the state ordered the shutdown of online news giant Rappler – another worrying sign for increased repression against press freedom in the Philippines.