Rights, public health and the Constitution

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    ‘Despite the creativity of Joyce Bernal, we doubt if this would be more interesting than the bland 1 a.m. meetings of the Inter-agency Task Force, recorded by the Palace…’

    TODAY, if plans do not miscarry, President Duterte will personally go to the Batasang Pambansa building and deliver his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) before a joint session of Congress. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, only a sparse group of representatives will be on hand to hear speech. Security and health protocols have been laid out quite sternly, as expected in any presidential outing, especially this very important one, even in normal times when there is no pandemic.

    True to his unquestioned loyalty, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año has countermanded the Philippine National Police’s maximum tolerance policy which it tries to adhere to during rallies and mass demonstrations. On July 23, four days before the scheduled SONA, Año issued a directive to all local government units to deny any rally permit application during Duterte’s SONA. This unnumbered advisory is in fact being cited by Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte in upping the protest resistance, pushing rallyists further away from the Batasan to the UP Diliman area.

    Año and the police will most likely seek the legal cover of social distancing, etc. under the Bayanihan to Heal as One law, a measure that has already lapsed. But who will dare argue legal issues with baton-wielding cops in the midst of a riotous rally? Then, the PNP can still invoke local ordinances on the wearing of face masks, keeping physical distance among people in public places, etc. in view of the pandemic.

    Where protests against the President are concerned, Año and the Inter-Agency Task Force are fast to act in enforcing protocols on public health. But in the case of the motley crowd of locally stranded individuals awaiting transportation to the provinces at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, Año and the Inter-Agency Task Force have not shown a modicum of concern.

    Two government officials sharing their thoughts on the issue show at least that this government will not readily trample on the Constitution even with the convenient excuse provided by the coronavirus. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra affirmed that the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution and everybody should follow.

    Jacqueline de Guia of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) supported this position, and why wouldn’t she when her commission is in charge of exactly that — defending the human rights of Filipinos. De Guia is correct in saying that freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, are protected by the Charter and other existing laws, including the Public Assembly Act or Batas Pambansa 880.

    We have had many SONAs, from President Ferdinand Marcos to Duterte, and each one was inevitably held with groups of noisy and disgruntled Filipinos outside the legislature. The activity in Congress is expected by many to start and end without any incident, as many Filipinos consider these rallies as no big deal, only traffic bottlenecks, yet Año chose to display his dogged loyalty to Duterte, and mess up the soup. Now that the Secretary of Interior and Local Government has taken an unnecessary combative stance, the more the protesters’ rage has been stoked, and the fire of indignation has surged.

    What do we want or expect to hear from President Duterte in this year’s SONA? Despite the creativity of Joyce Bernal, we doubt if this would be more interesting than the bland 1 a.m. meetings of the Inter-agency Task Force, recorded by the Palace, but aired on nationwide TV up to 3 a.m. when most everybody is asleep.

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