Only online, UP campus protests allowed; PNP on heightened alert

THE Philippine National Police went on heightened alert yesterday as it prepared to prevent protest rallies near the Batasan Pambansa complex in Quezon City where President Duterte will make his 5th State of the Nation Address  amid warnings by authorities that mass gatherings are the fastest way to spread the dreaded COVID-19 virus.

“We are on heightened alert as ordered by PNP chief General Archie Francisco Gamboa and ready with our security preparations for the President’s SONA. It's also  safe to say that no threat has been detected,” said PNP spokesman Brigadier Gen. Bernard M. Banac.

The National Capital Region Police Office headed by Major Gen. Debold M. Sinas has started monitoring the unauthorized entry of buses and other public utility vehicles carrying large groups of protesters in Metro Manila.

The PNP Highway Patrol Group headed by Brig. Gen. Eliseo DC Cruz was also ordered to accost drivers of buses and PUVs operating "out-of-line" to transport protesters to Batasan Pambansa.

However, police will allow peaceful and orderly mass gatherings inside the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City which is near the Batasan Pambansa complex where the President will make his address to the nation.

"Ginagalang natin ang academic freedom diyan pero sa public spaces, wala talagang pinapayagan na mag-rally at ang mga LGUs ay hindi na magbibigay ng permit,” Banac said.

Sinas said they will fully enforce the Department of the Interior and Local Government directive banning mass gatherings during the SONA to contain the spread of COVID-19.

"Kung ating mapapansin ngayon, dito sa Kalakhang Maynila, nasa critical stage na," Banac said as he noted that some hospitals have declared that their hospital beds allotted for COVID-19 patients were already full.

As part of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) rules on social distancing to help prevent the further  spread of COVID-19, police will only allow peaceful protests inside the UP Campus.

Maj. Gen. Sinas said they would allow anti-SONA protesters to gather at the UP Diliman campus for their traditional mass action even as  the PNP leadership encouraged the public to express dissent online and  help avoid the unseen killer virus.

Sinas said they will be deploying at least 5,000 policemen to help guard the event at the Batasan Pambansa complex with officers under orders to fully exercise maximum tolerance in dealing with demonstrators.

However, the NCRPO chief stressed that movement of protesters along Commonwealth Avenue would be prohibited and that the rallyists will be given until 12 noon to peacefully disperse.

The official however said that they have been ordered by Gen. Gamboa to allow peaceful gatherings inside the UP Campus as long as no law will be violated by the protesters.

Banac said that the NCRPO would allow peaceful protest rallies inside the UP Campus as long as the group follow minimum health standards specifically the wearing of face masks and social distancing.

The NCRPO will bar the protesters from marching towards Commonwealth Avenue leading to the Batasan Pambansa complex.  “Kung maaari ay stay at home na lang po. Gawin na lang po ang ating protest through online at naipapahayag pa naman ang ating boses, ang ating protesta through online. Ayaw natin malagay as panganib ang ating pamilya,” Banac said citing virus risks and capacities of hospitals as of late amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Leaders of various militant and civil society organizations said they would push through with their protests dubbed “SONAgkaisa” at the UP campus while vowing to comply with government health protocols.

Authorities earlier said that all protest rallies and demonstrations in Metro Manila and other areas under Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine or General Community Quarantine will be prohibited with the PNP ordered to strictly implement the directive from the IATF-MEID.