Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay’s call for the regulation of social media under the anti-terror law drew flak from various public officials and civil society groups for its potential to hinder freedom of speech online.

In a press briefing after he was inducted as the AFP’s 54th chief of staff, Gapay suggested a revision in the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020 which would help curb radicalization online through the monitoring of social media platforms.

“We’ll be providing some inputs on countering violent extremism and likewise, maybe regulating, even regulating social media because this is the platform now being used by terrorists to radicalize, to recruit and even plan terrorist acts,” he said in the presser on Monday.

However, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon stressed that Gapay’s proposal is “illegal and unconstitutional” on the grounds that it goes beyond the original intent behind the anti-terror law and violates the “inviolable right” of free speech.

“Social media is an effective platform for our people to voice out their criticisms against the government. If we insist on implementing the law this way, which is clearly contrary to legislative intent, then we justify the fears aired by the people against the passage of the law,” he said in a statement.

The legislator pointed out Section 16 of the law which dictates that law enforcers must first file an application to the Court of Appeals to conduct surveillance on individuals suspected of being involved in terrorism. 

Drilon also states that any government act that curtails the freedom of expression is subject to nullification under Section 3, Article III of the Constitution.

Muntinlupa Congressman Ruffy Biazon, one of the principal authors of the Anti-Terror Act, rebutted Gapay’s suggestion in a statement on Tuesday claiming that “it is not the intention of the legislators to cross the line of protecting freedom of expression and right to privacy.”

Biazon said that proposals on the regulation of social media have already been discussed during the law’s drafting but they were ultimately scrapped.

“There is no need for a power to regulate social media, which would mean that all users of social media, a majority of which are not terrorist suspects, would be vulnerable to breaches of privacy or restraint on freedom of expression,” the congressman said.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) also condemned Gapay’s suggestion claiming that regulating social media is tantamount to the “death of freedom of expression.”

In a statement, the NUJP claims that it is these types of suggestions which prove that the anti-terror law should be junked, claiming that the government has developed a mindset where criticism is equated with destabilization.

“Social media has given so many once voiceless Filipinos a platform to openly air their views on matters of public interest. Yet it is not inconceivable that a president who abhors criticism and dissent to the point that well-intentioned pleas are interpreted as calls for “revolution” would consider this an existential threat,” the group said.

The national organization of journalists claims that in order to defeat terrorism an environment where ideas can be freely shared, not censored, should be fostered.

“Aren’t we supposed to be a democracy, and is not one of the cornerstones of democracy the marketplace of ideas? For this to happen, we need more, not less, freedom,” NUJP said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday also clarified that there was no provision stating that social media will be regulated under the anti-terror law, stating that Gapay’s statement was merely a suggestion.

“Opinion po iyan ni General Gapay… Ang mayroon po diyan ay iyong ating cybercrimes law ‘no, may probisyon po diyan, pero subject po iyan sa authority na ibibigay ng ating hukuman,” Roque said.

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, whose aim is to prohibit and penalize acts of terrorism in the Philippines, was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on July 3, 2020.

Since the passage of the controversial law, 22 petitions to junk it have been filed with the Supreme Court. Carlito P. Topacio