Demonizing dissent

On 31 October 2019, the offices of several human rights organizations were simultaneously raided by Philippine police and military forces. Fifty-five activists were arrested, and an additional two more were collared the following day. Three activists were also arrested in Manila a few days later.

All were accused of being members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, Maoist armed groups that have been waging a civil war against the Philippine government for more than five decades. Bombs, guns, and “subversive” documents were said to have been found in the raided offices.

The Philippine government’s tactic of painting activists as “communists” or “terrorists” is nothing new, and this certainly does not happen only in the Philippines. In countries like Hong Kong/China, Thailand, India, even the United States, political dissenters, activists, and critics have been called by their respective governments as “enemies of the state,” “Communists,” “terrorists,” or some other term. In the case of the Philippines, such acts are followed by arrests and incarceration.

Government campaigns to demonize dissenters and activists and portray them as evil enemies of the state are designed to engender fear and hatred towards activists from the general public. This makes it easier for states to conduct abuses against activists and political dissenters, with the state justifying that these acts are quite necessary precisely because they are enemies of the state.

But are they?

Many countries are ruled by politico-economic elites who, because of the set up of the government and the economy, benefit greatly from the current status quo. A great number of leaders have even shown authoritarian or populist tendencies that violate basic rights people should enjoy. But then here come your local neighbourhood activists, questioning why people are not allowed to gather in protest or voice out dissenting opinions. These questions can–and are, of course, meant to–encourage other people to think critically about government policies. Of course, the powers-that-be in government do not like that.

But aside from questioning the status quo, many activists organizations also present alternatives to the current system. Take, for example, the Philippine human rights group Karapatan. On its website, the organization clearly states that its human rights advocacy is integrated with “national liberation,” “social emancipation,” “national industrialization,” agrarian reform, self determination of Indigenous Peoples, among others. These are presented as alternatives to the current system in the Philippines, one that is dominated by an economic elite that owns most of the arable land in the country and controls most of the economy. And since the economic elite most often than not also hold the reins of governmental power (albeit subservient to foreign influences), any alternative that challenges that hold on power must be demonized and stomped out by whatever means necessary.

What makes the job of demonizing dissenters easier is the fact that the ruling elites also hold power over media and other avenues of information. This is not to say that journalists have no agency; on the contrary, many journalists advocate for freedom of speech and information, and quite a number of journalist are incarcerated or killed yearly in their line of work. Yet media agencies are also corporations, one controlled by guess who? Yep, your moneyed economic elite (who, quite coincidentally, also happen to control the government).

In order for societies to be more democratic and inclusive, opposing views should be allowed to be heard. Activism and dissension should never be treated as crimes. They should be seen as wake-up calls on what can and should be changed in order to make the world a better place to live in.

So the next time your friendly neighbourhood human rights activist questions government policies, listen. And question.

Join. And make your voice heard, too.

Photo from Philippine Daily Inquirer