As the Philippines slowly rolled-out vaccines and breached the 1 million mark for cases—and the 20,000 mark for deaths—of and due to COVID-19 by midyear of 2021, Filipinos struggled to adapt to a life that is mostly moving online, regardless of who it may leave behind. Online, freedoms are held even more at risk. A country known for its widespread social media usage and ‘troll’ networks has its citizenry seemingly ‘chilled’ to silence by way of the continued weaponization of cyber libel, especially by government authorities and elected officials seemingly allergic to legitimate criticism. Children pay the price and are exploited in exchange for money, amid a backdrop of poverty and lack of social protection for the poorest families. As the preference for ‘contactless’ and digital transactions grows, so do the propensity for hacks, scams, and frauds online.
All these within the context of an Anti-Terror Law that is almost a year old, and which saw members of indigenous peoples arrested, and peace consultants, human rights groups, and progressive organizations designated, as terrorists.
This report is based on a desktop monitoring of significant reports on cybercrime, developments in the Cybercrime Prevention Act and the Anti-Terror Law, and other related violations of human rights online from January 2021 to June 2021. Where applicable, earlier reports are cited to provide context.
2. Cybercrime cases
For the first half of 2021, a noted trend of local elected officials and government officers filing cyber libel cases against critics is observed. A significant case for monitoring is one case that seems to do away with the requirement of publication in cyber libel (the accused was arrested for supposedly spreading malicious messages through a private messaging app). A complainant withdrew a cyber libel case, one that involved a series of highly politicized cases against a top journalist of a social media news network.
Online sexual exploitation of children surged during the pandemic, prompting a four-part investigative series on the issue and the passage of a bill to strengthen protections for children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation.
Private and public sectors alike struggled with data breaches, frauds, and intrusive data collection, in the context of COVID-19 and the migration of services and data online. A cause for alarm is the latest distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack against alternative media outfits and a human rights group, which was traced back to a government agency and the military.
Cyber / online libel
Earlier in August 2020, a community radio station in Nueva Ecija pushed back against cyber libel charges filed by the mayor, stemming from a report on the local government’s supplemental budget for COVID-19 response. The mayor found the report inaccurate and misleading, while the station’s counsel stated the report was a mere transcription of a municipal council session. The mayor additionally complained that photos of senior citizens with placards seeking COVID-19 relief caused “undue chaos and confusion.” In response, the radio station planned to file administrative complaints against the officials who filed the libel complaints.
In September 2020, another mayor, this time in Tabuk, filed cyber libel cases against editors of an online community newspaper. The mayor accused the newspaper for publishing “baseless news which are false statements.” The newspaper published articles linking the mayor to overpriced medical supplies, among other instances of alleged corruption. The editors tagged the case as part of an overused strategy of harassing individuals.
In January 2021, top journalist Maria Ressa faced her third cyber libel case, over a January 2020 article exposing a thesis-for-sale scheme in a Manila university. Her co-author was also charged with cyber libel, and called for the decriminalization of libel to stop the harassment of journalists.
In Cebu, a high-ranking executive officer—the Secretary of the Office of the Assistant to the President in Visayas—filed cyber libel charges against a businessman, for allegedly spreading malicious messages (via a private messaging app) against a foundation named after the Secretary’s mother. The businessman was arrested in January.
In February, the Cordillera regional police chief sued an indigenous leader for cyber libel. The police chief alleged that the IP group leader blamed him for the demolition of a memorial to Kalinga leader Macli-ing Dulag.
A Caloocan city mayor filed three counts of cyber libel against five city councilors, also in February. The five councilors allegedly claimed, through several videos online, that digital tablets procured by the local government were substandard, delayed in their distribution, and overpriced. The mayor also called the councilor’s complaints as part of ‘politicking’ as election season nears.
In Iloilo, a regional trial court found a “fugitive social media blogger” guilty of additional counts of cyber libel for Facebook posts directed against a senator (who filed the charges). Generally, the posts alleged corruption on the part of the senator, which allegations were previously cleared by the Ombudsman. The court declared that while it recognizes the right to air grievances against public officials, “such must be ‘an expression of opinion based on established facts, or can be reasonably inferred from the facts.” The blogger, who was formerly a provincial administrator, was already convicted of cyber libel prior and is in hiding as he faces outstanding warrants of arrest.
In March, a Tarlac mayor filed cyber libel charges against three individuals, including a coordinator for the group Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and a farmer, for allegedly imputing via Facebook videos that the mayor was a land grabber and was harassing farmers in rural areas. The mayor stated that the farmer was claiming more land than he was entitled to.
A Bohol governor also filed cyberlibel charges against a critic and ‘social media influencer,’ who alleged via Facebook posts that the official was involved in several anomalies.
In June, a trial court in Makati dismissed the second cyberlibel case against Maria Ressa—one where she took to Twitter to post screenshots of an old article which was the subject of the first libel complaint—in light of the complainant’s withdrawal of the case.
Prosecutors in Quezon City approved the filing of cyber libel charges against editors of a local tabloid, after they published a story about nude photos of a celebrity, which turned out to be fake.
A government official, this time from the Land Transportation Office (LTO) in Central Visayas, sued five motorcycle companies for cyber libel this June after the latter accused the former of extortion. The companies released a joint statement that alleged the LTO official demanded “grease money” to hasten the motorcycle registration process, which the official denied.
A vlogger in Baguio who “was assigned to malign” a Manila mayor, a television broadcaster, and a senator was arrested over three counts of cyber libel. The vlogger also faces wiretapping charges for pretending to be a bishop in a call with a lawmaker, the recording of which he posted online.
Cybersex / Online sexual exploitation of children
During the pandemic, cases of online sexual exploitation of children surged. More than 1.29 million images and videos of child abuse were reported in 2020, triple the number from 2019. Highlighting this, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism penned a four-part series of investigative stories on online sexual exploitation of children.
In March, four women were convicted after pleading guilty for the online sexual exploitation of children in Cebu. Three of those convicted were related to the victims, with one of them reported to have “offered” her son for online sexual exploitation in exchange for money.
In May, police in Camarines Sur rescued 14 minors and arrested suspects, as well as seized digital devices containing several child sexual exploitation materials, a sex toy, and several money transfer receipts showing foreigners as senders. The minors’ ages ranged from two to 17 years old.
In April, in the wake of heightened quarantine limitations in the Philippines, authorities arrested individuals behind fake COVID-19 testing activities, and charged them with falsification in relation to the CPA (as test results are usually released online). They were also charged with estafa (deceit).
The Department of Justice – Office of Cybercrime (DOJ-OC) also reported at this time that Facebook has taken down a page associated with malicious tagging and malware downloads. Introduction of malwares to computer systems is a crime under the CPA.
The DOJ-OC also warned in May against unlawful data collection and debt collection practices of online lending companies, citing that these may constitute violations of the CPA. At the same time, a data breach that exposed around 345,000 files of the Office of the Solicitor General was also reported.
A cybersecurity firm also reported in May that there are over 55,500 password stealers in the Philippines as of the first quarter of 2021. This was a 25% increase based on the same period in 2020. The firm also detected a group of cybercriminals called ‘Ransomware 2.0,’ who hostaged and exfiltrated data, followed by blackmailing—resulting in significant monetary and reputation loss.
In June, a forensics nonprofit found that distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks against alternative media outlets and a human rights group originated from IP addresses from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the military. The same groups have faced DDOS attacks previously, which the nonprofit also traced back to a Philippine-based attacker. The DOST stated that the allegations were “unfounded and patently false.” In response, the alternative media outlets and the human rights group called for the DOST to investigate the cyberattacks.
Alleged participants (including a minor) to a phishing scam targeting foreign nationals were also arrested in June in Quezon City. The participants are supposedly employees of a marketing company that did not have business permits.
In May, a man from Southern Leyte was arrested after he tried to extort money from his ex-girlfriend in exchange for not uploading their intimate videos on social media. He was charged with a violation of the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act, done via computer systems, in relation to the CPA.
3. Anti-Terror Law (ATL): cases and reports
In implementing the Anti-Terror Law amid a pandemic, authorities worked to designate individuals as ‘terrorists’ and red-tagged individuals—thus endangering their lives and implying they are ‘terrorists,’ too—via social media and in open court.
Previously in October 2020, an Indonesian woman was reported to be the “test case” to be tried for the new ATL, for allegedly carrying bombs and other items as if she was preparing for a terrorist act. A senator said “this is one example of an inchoate offense made punishable under the new anti-terrorism law. By including inchoate offenses…we are criminalizing the foregoing acts of the arrested suspects which include the planning, preparation and facilitation of terrorism.”
In the first publicly known case under the ATL, two Aetas were charged in November 2020 under Section 4(a) or “acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person’s life” for allegedly shooting soldiers. However, the two Aetas said that the military trespassed on their ancestral land and they were in the process of evacuating their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire when they were arrested.
Red-tagging and the ATL
In January 2021, the spokesperson of the National Talk Force to End Local Armed Conflict, who is also the commanding officer of the military’s Southern Luzon Command, posted in Facebook to imply that petitioners against the ATL are linked to communist groups.
The same month, several alumni of a State university, who were tagged in social media by the military as members of the National People’s Army (NPA – the communist movement’s military arm) mulled filing cyber libel charges against military and defense officials who red-tagged them. They also decried the red-tagging incidents as efforts to go after those who sought to nullify the ATL before the Supreme Court.
In February, a petitioner against the ATL was arrested in Cebu for allegedly training Lumad children to be “child warriors” of a communist group.
In March, student publications reported heightened instances of red-tagging amid a pandemic. One student publication received a death threat from a suspected troll account, while others were accused of being front groups for communist organizations and terrorists. Given the ATL’s vague definition of terrorism, these instances of red-tagging have made campus reporting even more difficult and dangerous.
In April, when community pantries blossomed all over the country to address gaps in COVID-19 relief, community pantry volunteers / organizations were red-tagged as communists in social media pages handled by local police. The posts have long been deleted, with the police apologizing for the incident. A month later, in May, the national police offered to help a prominent community pantry organizer after she received death and rape threats online.
In May, the anti-terror council designated 19 people as terrorists, including peace consultants. This while the ATL was being challenged before the Supreme Court. The designations allowed authorities to start freezing the bank accounts of those in the alleged terrorist list.
4. Developments on the Cybercrime Prevention Act (CPA)
Following the controversy over Maria Ressa’s cyber libel conviction, a lawmaker filed in June 2020 a House Bill that proposes to set a one-year prescription period for cyber libel.
In April 2021, the president appointed a new Supreme Court Chief Justice, who pledged to exercise the high court’s rule-making power and revise the rules on extraordinary writs, search warrants, and arrest warrants, which is seen as a move to address escalating human rights problems involving State agents. The Court has previously drafted rules on cybercrime warrants.
On May 2021, Senate Bill No. 2209 or the Special Protections against Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) Act was passed on third and final reading. Among other provisions that aim to expand protections against OSAEC, the bill also repeals Section 4.c.1 of the CPA, which penalizes cybersex. The bill is pending concurrence by the House of Representatives.
Also in May, the Supreme Court designated 77 more branches of regional trial courts to act as special commercial courts, in light of the influx of cases involving cybercrime, competition, and intellectual property. The courts handling cybercrime cases shall be called special cybercrime courts.
5. Updates on Supreme Court petitions to nullify the ATL
In February 2021, while hearings on the constitutionality of the ATL were ongoing, a human rights lawyer warned that Filipinos exercising rights on social media may be considered criminals under the ATL. According to the lawyer, the law was worded in that “it gives enforcers the power to infer the ‘intent’ of undertaking protests, work stoppages and other exercises of civil and political rights.”
The Supreme Court also denied two Aetas’ petitions to be included as petitioners-in-intervention against the ATL, after the Solicitor General told the Court that the Aetas were forced to sign the petition. The two Aetas are the same ones charged with violations in the first publicly known case under the ATL. They sought to enjoin officials from enforcing the ATL.
Before the end of the oral hearings, petitioners against the ATL requested to expunge the testimony of the vice chair of the anti-terror council (who was also the national security adviser) from the records, after he red-tagged several progressive organizations in open court. The Solicitor General, during an earlier hearing, also red-tagged progressive groups and a human rights lawyer.
Petitioners were directed by the Supreme Court to submit their memoranda and final position papers by June, after which the case on the constitutionality of the ATL is deemed submitted for decision.
In June, a Constitutionalist and former chair of the Commission on Elections warned that the ATL may be weaponized against opposition candidates, in light of the upcoming 2022 elections. In calling for the Supreme Court to nullify the law, the former chair said, “The Anti-Terrorism Act is a proxy for martial law with even broader authoritarian powers of detention, designation of red-tagging, of surveillance, of freezing of bank accounts of political targets.”
While the first half of 2021 saw little to no improvement on the continued weaponization of cyber libel (especially by public officials), the consistent red-tagging of progressive organizations, and the proliferation of threats to cybersecurity in the country, the passage of a bill in Senate addressing online sexual exploitation of children (and repealing cybersex in the CPA) is a positive development. Meanwhile, stakeholders await the Supreme Court decision on the ATL, which is crucial in light of the looming 2022 elections.
The second half of 2021 will see intensified electoral campaigns online, even as the country moves at a laggard vaccination pace. As the country selects news leaders, calls to decriminalize libel or improve cybersecurity may be shelved by lawmakers anew, as these are not identified as priority legislation or policy in Congress nor in national agencies. An unfavorable ruling on the ATL—especially its free speech provisions and its definitions of terrorism—will thus give authorities even more leeway to persecute dissenters and critics. Without critical pushback from civil society and social movements, the months leading to the elections may be marked with significant human rights violations not only online but offline. With elections also comes an added layer of electoral misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation on top of a global infodemic, making media literacy campaigns and broad-based collaborative efforts to combat ‘fake news’ crucial at this time.