EXPLAINER: UP Cebu arrests: Is right to assemble and protest suspended by quarantine law?

Photo by Amper Campana

THE SITUATION. Friday, June 5, about 30 people bearing protest placards massed in front of the University of the Philippines Cebu grounds in Lahug, Cebu City to demonstrate against passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

Police anti-riot troops soon arrived and ordered them to disperse in 5 or 10 minutes or face arrest. Police said the protesters violated the law on general quarantine regarding mass gathering: not more than 10 people. Thus, police said, the protesters were “endangering public safety.” When the protesters refused, police took three students, four members of local progressive groups and one bystander to the police station, presumably under arrest.

They will be charged, police said, with violation of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020 and the Public Assembly Act of 1985. The second law requires a permit for a rally but only in parks, private properties and state campuses. The UP Office of the Student Regent and UP Cebu chancellor Liza Corro in official statements said they were “deeply disturbed” by the police action. Among others, College Editors Guild of the Philippines and digital student publications “Tug-ani” of UP Cebu and “The Carolinian” of University San Carlos condemned the dispersal and arrest.

Undisputed facts

As in most controversies, the UP Cebu incident bears facts that don’t jibe and contentions that clash. What we know that are not disputed:

[1] The protesters massed in, or near, the premises of the UP Cebu to demonstrate against Congress and the Anti-Terrorism Law. The demonstration was peaceful but police dispersed the crowd, invoking the quarantine law that bans mass gatherings. Video clips show some law enforcers chasing the suspects into UP Cebu property.

[2] Basing on news in regular media, nobody suffered body injury or harm from the police action. Reports in the two student papers said the responders were “heavily armed” anti-riot troops, which the local PNP office has not denied. And there was no claim or report of a gunshot being fired.

Agreement ‘violated'

From initial statements of UP Cebu and the pro-protesters camp, they are pushing as major issue the alleged violation of a 31-year-old agreement between state college and the law enforcement establishment.

The protest action and the arrests were made in the premises of UP Cebu and therefore, the pro-UP camp says, police violated a 1989 UP-Department of National Defense Accord, signed by student Sonia Soto and then defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile. The pact prohibits the entry of police and military to any of the UP System’s campuses without the school’s permission. Military, police and paramilitary Cafgu units “shall not interfere with peaceful protest actions by UP constituents within UP premises.” If any warrant of arrest is to be served, under the same agreement, law enforcers shall notify first or coordinate with the UP official in charge.

This argument will depend on a factual basis: whether the protest was made in UP Cebu premises. Be it yes or no, was spirit or intent of the agreement not violated when police pursued the suspects beyond UP gate and fence and into school grounds? As to the arrests, they were warrantless and therefore the lack of prior notice that chancellor Corro decried wouldn’t technically apply.

The core issue

What appears to be the central issue though is the strength of Bayanihan law and related laws the police now employ against the protesters. Do the laws directed at the public health emergency suspend most other rights granted by law and the Constitution?

Police do not invoke the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which has not yet been signed, or allowed to lapse, into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. Instead, they say they were enforcing the Bayanihan law that punishes violation of the rules on physical distancing and other health protocols.

Effect on other rights

The same Bayanihan law has allowed the state to impose the “shelter-in-place” and lockdown measures and to close borders and immobilize transport vehicles, in effect scuttling constitutional rights of abode and travel.

Does it not also put on hold the right to assemble, thus no protest action can be lawfully held in public and en masse during the crisis? If churches submit to secular authority, close their doors to devotees or admit no more than 10 people, are protesters exempt and they can assemble in size bigger than that allowed for activities of priests and bishops?

Rants on Facebook and Twitter give vent to individual and pent-up fury. But this question will hang until decided by the Supreme Court: whether the right of government to use repressive measures during the period of emergency also suspends most other rights of citizens, particularly the right to assemble and air grievance in public.

[Disclosure: Atty. Seares taught for a number of years journalism law and ethics at UP Cebu.]


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