The University of the Philippines has protested against a decision by the defence department to suddenly rescind a ban on unauthorized entry by military and police onto campus.
University chancellor Fidel Nemenzo said in a statement on Tuesday that the withdrawal of the Department of National Defense (DND) from an agreement that had stood “as testament to our university’s actions on behalf of academic freedom” had caused “grave concern” among members of the institution.
The UP’s student publication, Philippine Collegian, on Monday published the DND letter in full. It indicates an end to protections under the Soto-Enrile Accord, under which UP schools became safe harbors for free speech, human rights activism and political dissent, according to the University’s website.
“Abrogating the MOA [memorandum of agreement] unilaterally denies these essential safeguards and precludes dialogue that the accord was precisely envisioned to facilitate,” Nemenzo said in his statement.
“Effectively, it curtails academic freedom and fosters an environment of fear,” he added.
The DND used a controversial new anti-terrorism law to dismantle the agreement, alleging that UP campuses were used as recruiting grounds for terrorist organizations.
Legislators in the United States have warned that the law used vague language and unchecked discretion to label citizens and entities as terrorists, allowing the government to arrest and detain people for up to 24 days without a warrant.
During a UP protest against the proposed measures in June 2020, Filipino National Police allegedly violated the then-active agreement by entering the campus of UP Cebu, wearing riot gear to forcibly disperse the protesters. Local media reported that eight people were arrested during the action.
DND has accused the Philippine’s Communist Party and the New Peoples’ Army of using the Soto-Enrile Accords to shield their recruitment efforts on campus from law enforcement.
However, the communication from defense officials insisted it did not intend to suppress activism or freedom of expression, nor would it station military or police on campus.
“Claims about clandestine communist recruitment in the campus, which require rigorous proof, are not grounds to cancel an agreement founded on a constitutional right,” Chancellor Nemenzo said.
“If the DND says, as it does, that it will neither post military or police inside the UP campuses nor suppress academic freedom or freedom of expression, why does the MOA need to be abrogated?” he asked.
Human rights-activists have warned the reason move represents yet another attempt by President Rodrigo Duterte to curtail free speech in the Philippines, which already boasts one of the world’s worst records on civil liberties.
In 2017, OCCRP named the Filipino president as Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption, whom judges described as having “made a mockery of rule of law in his country.”
“Duterte will do everything to stifle academic freedom and quell free speech,” said Filipino human rights activist, Francis Baraan IV, in a tweet about the decision.
“Our democracy is under attack by our own government. The people are being painted as terrorists,” he stressed.
Students, activists and alumni also spoke out on Twitter, calling the actions “fascist” and “blatant red-tagging,” and organized protests to be staged in the coming days.