HomeFeaturesFor whom the terror tolls: Writing, Reading and the Anti-Terrorism Law

For whom the terror tolls: Writing, Reading and the Anti-Terrorism Law

Whenever I think of the Anti-Terrorism Law and its possible impact on journalism, literature, academic scholarship, history and culture—the humanities in general—I often catch myself at a loss for words.

The difficulty lies not so much on the gravity of the collision—and it is with scientific certainty that both will collide sooner or later—but on what repression might have in store for creative people in both the media and our universities.

If history is any indication as to what brutality can achieve, rest assured that the same will repeat itself if good and learned Filipinos do nothing.

Midnight of July 18 saw the Philippine Anti-Terrorism Act going full throttle, a law which is anything but anti-terrorist or anti-terrorism.

Even a cursory reading of the said law, vague as it is from the start, tells anyone that President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime is hellbent on weaponizing this “legislative milestone” if only to pull the rug from underneath its critics.

Losing no time to approve the said bill regardless of the pressing problems facing the country, the law bulldozed its way through Congress with little sympathy to a nation walking on the crutches of a pandemic and skyrocketing unemployment.

Netizens were quick to point out that the government may be scrambling to enact the controversial law in response to massive protest actions that are growing by the hour.

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The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism makes this point clear: “Even without the Implementing Rules and Regulations and with at least nine petitions against it pending before the Supreme Court, the controversial Anti-Terror Law takes effect today.”

Hong Kong’s National Security Law

This reminds me of how the People’s Republic of China launched the Hong Kong National Security Law weeks ago: under a cloak of secrecy.

It’s a fact that not too many had read or seen the bill prior to its signing by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The cloak-and-dagger playbook left much of the city’s population scouring the dark as to what the new law is all about.

Aware of China’s repressive track record, news of the law’s enactment has compelled bookshops and libraries to empty their shelves of any book even remotely associated with themes like freedom and the liberation of Hong Kong. Or at least that’s what reports say.

Many in Hong Kong fear that this can change indefinitely the literary and intellectual landscape of the city. Hong Kong publishers, too, felt they have become a target as they rush to “edit” books that carry stories reminiscent of the student protests.

A protester in Hong Kong on July 14, 2019 holds a sign calling for press freedom. (shutterstock.com photo)

The impact is such that even pre-scheduled book fairs suffered postponements and exhibitors told to hold off any publication that could fall into the category of “dangerous reading.”

Reuters said, “The Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which organizes the annual Hong Kong Book Fair, told exhibitors not to display what it called ‘unlawful books’ at this week’s planned fair, but did not explain further. The council postponed the fair at the last minute on July 13 due to a recent spike in cases of the new coronavirus. It did not specify a new date for the event, which draws about 1 million visitors.”

I spoke to Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, president of PEN Hong Kong and an Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, on the matter. The editor of Hong Kong Studies, the first and only peer-reviewed journal devoted to Hong Kong, said that while it’s yet too early to tell as no writer had yet been shut down by the new National Security Law, there’s no reason that it won’t happen.

“Many of the more repressive measures,” she said “will be rolled out incrementally, and on a case-by-case basis. Dissident mainland Chinese writers such as Ma Jian, who were previously published in Hong Kong, have found it increasingly difficult to get publishers here to take on their books. Similarly, with academics, we have observed no direct effect of the new law yet but there is bound to be a chilling effect, given most university vice presidents supported it. A number of scholars based overseas, including scholars on China, have told me they fear for their safety if they were to come to Hong Kong now, given the National Security Law gives itself the scope to prosecute offenses committed by non-Chinese citizens anywhere in the world. There is also the possibility ‘troublesome’ academics will have their career prospects blocked, or, if they are foreigners, have working visas refused. This has already happened to journalists, such as Victor Mallet of the Financial Times, and just this week, to Chris Buckley of The New York Times.”

On the matter of publishers editing books to conform to the law’s demands, Tammy said, “There have been minor edits made to at least one book in preparation though I don’t know how widespread this is at present. We are likely to see more cases of publishers being circumspect, since the National Security Law is so all-embracing, and it is very easy to fall foul of it. Speaking for myself as an academic, editor, poet, and translator, I will not shy away from ‘sensitive’ topics and materials, for as long as that remains possible.”

Apparently, the strain on writing and scholarship in Hong Kong doesn’t begin and end there. Mid-July saw US President Donald Trump pulling the plug on the China-Hong Kong Fulbright Scholarship, ending a 17-year humanities exchange program.

Trump’s executive order may have been triggered by increasing geopolitical tensions between the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

Employees and supporters of television network ABS-CBN hold a demonstration outside the media organization’s headquarters in Quezon City on July 18. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

On a collision course with the ‘Terror Law’

At the home front, how writing and the arts would come to grips with the Philippine Anti-Terrorism Law is anybody’s guess. As in Hong Kong’s case, it’s also too early to tell.

Many believe it makes little sense to impose censorship on literature and journalism even as recent investigations filed by Senator Christopher “Bong” Go against a student who criticized him on social media makes the rounds of Twitter and Facebook.

Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution’s Bill of Rights is as clear as it can get: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.

In spite of this provision, the previous administration of former President Benigno Aquino III had signed into law Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Act of 2012. Suffice it for this piece that the said law had had a chilling effect on netizens since it was signed in September 2012.

Senator Go wasn’t the first to take on critics using the Cybercrime Law as a weapon. In fact, government news bureau PTV.News said that all across the political divide, there have been a spike in cyber-libel complaints in the last couple of years.

Could this have been the reason why some writers choose to echo the regime’s attempts to thwart freedom of the press even prior to the enactment of the so-called Terror Law?

There is the case of National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José. The 95-year old author’s commentaries on the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest news and entertainment network, call into question his real sentiments on the matter of press freedom.

Himself a publisher, professor and a celebrated author, he seems to be toeing the government’s line on the matter of the closure of ABS-CBN and the loss of 11,000 employees due to the non-renewal of the network’s franchise.

This earned the National Artist flak from netizens and fellow authors. The Philippine Center of the International PEN, an organization of poets, essayists and novelists he once founded and led, has time and again stood against the Anti-Terrorism Law and any attempt by government to restrict freedom of speech and of the press. How and why this happened is anybody’s guess.

The Order of National Artists is one of the highest recognitions bestowed to artists in the Philippines. The title alone gives each national artist a swathe of influence in artistic and sociopolitical circles. Suffice it that José’s claims have caused a rift in a community already divided at the seams.

Urban poor settlers show their support for the protest motorcade of employees and supporters of television network ABS-CBN that passed by their community on July 18. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

A growing resistance

The possibility that the Anti-Terrorism Law could impact the writing of journalism, literature and the publishing industry in general cannot be denied.

Danton Remoto, a multi-awarded and internationally-recognized Filipino novelist related to me that, “The danger might lie in that the authorities would mistake a novel for a factual book and sue the writers for perceived slights and allusions. But fiction is a work of the imagination.”

Raising a grievance or criticizing officials a little too hypersensitive for their own sakes could prove injurious to writers and journalists whose job is simply to mirror the facts.

Nonoy Espina, director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines fears that the charge of terrorism can be applied on most nearly anything said or penned down on paper on account of the law’s ambiguous scope:

“The law is so broad that almost everything we do, say or write can be interpreted as terrorism or incitement. Fear is a killer,” Espina said.

The long-term impact proves even grimmer. Social anthropologist and university professor Antonio J. Montalvan II, who writes a column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said he fears that our grasp of political realities may soon tumble, leaving many to rely on government’s distorted narrative than the truth.

“The gravest effect of the Anti-Terrorism Law as I see it in long term: the dumbing down of our political cognition so that we gradually accept the chosen few elite’s distortion of the law, even if they use it as toilet paper. It’s a process where we gradually lose our voice and our sense of the rule of law. The closure of ABS-CBN provided a very convenient smokescreen to deliberately ignore the grotesqueness of the political system. An anti-terror law creates a sociology of repression that is the necessary Siamese twin of oligarchic abuse by the chosen few political elite.”

Silence not an option

From the looks of it, though, it seems that silence is not and will never be an option among journalists and members of the literary community in the Philippines.

The generation of writers and artists who went toe to toe with Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law are still alive today. To them, the people’s revolution of 1986 has yet to end.

Likewise, today’s generation has taken a bold stance using the technology at their disposal, giving officials who know little of the world of cyberspace a run for their money. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: all these and more are putting a dent on the slow crawl of tyranny into people’s homes.

If what’s happening on social media stands as proof of the offensive that is slowly brewing in the backdrop, the next several weeks and months would see this administration facing tremendous challenges in their hands.

What once was segregated is slowly converging.

It is apparent that it would take more than an Anti-Terrorism Law to compel the republic of letters to turn their backs on what has always been touted as the freest, if not the boldest, press in the world.

Joel Pablo Salud is an editor, journalist and the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction.

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