The Philippines is a multi-party, constitutional republic with a bicameral legislature. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, elected in May 2016, began his constitutionally limited six-year term in June 2016. The 2016 presidential election was generally seen as free and fair. Barangay (village) and youth council elections originally scheduled for 2016 were twice postponed but ultimately held in May. These, too, were generally free and fair, although there were reports of violence and vote buying.
Civilian control over the Philippine National Police (PNP) continued to improve but was not fully effective.
Extrajudicial killings have been the chief human rights concern in the country for many years and, after a sharp rise with the onset of the antidrug campaign in 2016, they continued in the reporting year, albeit at a lower level. From January to September 29, media chronicled 673 deaths in police operations suspected to be connected with the government’s antidrug campaign. The PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) is required to investigate all deaths or injuries committed in the conduct of a police operation. IAS claimed it began investigations of all reported extrajudicial killings. There were no reports that civilian control over other security forces was inadequate.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces, vigilantes, and others allegedly connected to the government, and by insurgents; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; criminal libel; killings of and threats against journalists; official corruption and abuse of power; and the use of forced and child labor.
The government investigated a limited number of reported human rights abuses, including abuses by its own forces, paramilitaries, and insurgent and terrorist groups. Concerns about police impunity increased significantly following the sharp increase in killings by police in 2016. President Duterte publicly rejected criticism of alleged police killings, but said authorities would investigate any actions taken outside the rule of law. Significant concerns persisted about impunity of civilian national and local government officials and powerful business and commercial figures. Slow judicial processes remained an obstacle to bringing government officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses to justice.
Muslim separatists, communist insurgents, and terrorist groups continued to attack government security forces and civilians, causing displacement of civilians and resulting in the deaths of security force members and civilians. Terrorist organizations engaged in kidnappings for ransom, bombings of civilian targets, beheadings, and the use of child soldiers in combat or auxiliary roles. The government called off negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the political arm of the communist New People’s Army, in June, but continued to explore ways to resume talks.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals reported they could criticize the government publicly or privately or discuss matters of general public interest. Civil society organizations reported, however, that President Duterte’s public attacks on individuals and international bodies who criticized his policies had a chilling effect on free speech and expression.
Press and Media Freedom: The media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, including criticism of the government, despite critical and threatening comments from political leadership, including the president. Some media commentators criticized media outlets for lacking rigorous journalistic standards or for reflecting the political orientations or economic interests of owners or boards of directors. Broadcast media contacts reported pressure from their boards of directors to report positively on the government for fear of economic retaliation on their business interests.
Online news company Rappler was the target of substantial government pressure due to its critical coverage of the government. In January the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s operating license on the grounds that its agreement with the U.S.-based Omidyar Network violated constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of media. In July the Court of Appeals upheld the SEC ruling but asked the SEC to re-evaluate the case while noting that the SEC should have given Rappler “reasonable time” to correct its relationship with Omidyar. Rappler continued to operate as of November. The government also filed tax fraud and other (see below) criminal complaints against Rappler. The Department of Justice indicted Rappler Holdings, its president, Maria Ressa, and Rappler accountant Noel Baladiang for tax evasion in November, allegations Rappler Holdings’ legal counsel denies.
Journalists noted that President Duterte’s tendency to single out reporters who asked tough questions had a chilling effect on their willingness to engage, in large part due to a fear of losing access. In the year to July, four government offices restricted journalist access to events and press briefings.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from politicians and government authorities critical of their reporting. Human rights NGOs frequently criticized the government for failing to protect journalists. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) reported that, in July, three journalists and an intern covering a picket line in Central Luzon were attacked, threatened, arrested, and unjustly accused of possessing illegal drugs and firearms by the police, who claimed they recovered drugs and guns from the news correspondents. The journalists and intern were released in August, but police alleged they were spreading alarm and scandal, and constituted an illegal assembly.
The CMFR reported the deaths of seven journalists or media workers through July, but has not yet determined whether the killings were related to their work. As of July murder charges were filed against suspects in one case; the others were under investigation.
Journalists and media personalities reported an increase in online threats, including of violence and harassment, in response to articles and comments critical of the government. The NGO Freedom House reported in late 2017 that the Duterte administration hired workers, a “keyboard army,” to participate in online attacks against critics, especially journalists, whom they viewed as critical of the administration and to support the antidrug campaign.
In April, after Facebook selected Rappler and Vera Files as third-party fact checkers for the country, the Presidential Communications Operations Office publicly criticized the selection, calling the outlets “partisan” for not supporting the president.
In July Senate President Vicente Sotto III requested the online news website Inquirer.net take down three opinion pieces (two from 2014 and one from 2016) alleging his involvement in a 1982 rape case. The news website temporarily removed the articles pending an internal investigation. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called Sotto’s request an affront to press freedom. In August the National Union of Journalists and the CMFR criticized the Presidential Task Force on Media Security and an administration media official for pressuring a community newspaper to take down a story quoting the head of the task force.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: President Duterte repeatedly criticized ABS-CBN, the nation’s most influential network, for the station’s failure to air his political advertisements during the 2016 election campaign. He publicly threatened to block renewal of the network’s franchise, which expires in 2020, but later backtracked and claimed he would not intervene. The law requires broadcast stations to secure a franchise from Congress, the current majority of which is aligned with the president.
During the November ASEAN Summit in Singapore, administration officials barred some foreign media outlets from covering Philippine press briefings; the journalists were later granted access but were not allowed to ask questions.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law contains criminal penalties for libel. Authorities used criminal defamation charges, which carry the possibility of imprisonment and fines, to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against journalists. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed a cyberlibel complaint against Rappler in March, after a prominent businessman had brought to the bureau’s attention a 2012 article linking him to human trafficking and drug smuggling. The NBI initially rejected the case as lacking any legal basis, but subsequently recommended the Department of Justice pursue charges against Rappler. Formal charges were still pending as of November. The CMFR received one additional report of a journalist accused of libel in the year to August.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 60 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for the right to peaceful assembly, and police generally exhibited professionalism and restraint in dealing with demonstrators. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque stated in January that authorities would “observe maximum tolerance” and “respect the protesters’ right to peaceful assembly.” There was no reported progress in the PNP’s investigation of the forcible dispersal of farmers and protesters in Kidapawan City in 2016 that left two protesters dead and many others injured. A CHR investigation found that the PNP used unnecessary force to disperse the protest. No disciplinary action was taken, and no charges were filed as of August.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government by secret ballot in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. Candidates, including for the presidency, frequently had their legal right to run for office challenged by political opponents based on criminality, citizenship, or other disqualifying conditions. These cases were sometimes pursued to the Supreme Court. Political candidates were allowed to substitute placeholders for themselves if unable to complete the registration process on time.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The country conducted nationwide elections in May for barangay (village) and sangguniang kabataan (youth council) officials. Originally scheduled for October 2016, the elections were twice postponed and rescheduled. International and national observers viewed the elections as well organized, and generally free and fair, but noted that vote buying continued to be widespread and dynastic political families continued to monopolize elective offices. The PNP reported 47 incidents of election-related violence that led to 35 killings in the month leading up to the election and on election day, an almost 60 percent increase in violent incidents compared to the 2010 and 2013 village elections. Election officials nonetheless described the polls as relatively peaceful. Late in the campaign, the Duterte administration released its “narco list,” which included names of incumbent local and national government officials allegedly involved in illegal drug activity. Several of these candidates, however, won.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Participation by these groups did not change significantly compared with the 2016 presidential election or the midterm elections in 2013.
Men dominated political life, and observers commented that some female politicians served as “placeholders” when male members of their dynastic political families had to leave office due to term limits. Media commentators also expressed concern that political dynasties limited opportunities for female candidates not connected to political families to seek nomination.
There were no Muslim or indigenous cabinet members or senators, but there were 15 Muslim members of the House of Representatives, mostly from Muslim majority provinces, and at least three members of indigenous descent in the House of Representatives. Muslims, indigenous groups, and others maintained that electing senators from a nationwide list favored established political figures from the Manila area. They advocated election of senators by region, which would require a constitutional amendment.
The law provides for a party list system, designed to ensure the representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors of society, for 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.