Karapatan on the creation of the AFP Cyber Security Group

January 18, 2024

The military’s announcement of the creation of the AFP Cyber Security Group under the Civil Relations Service days before the arrival in the country of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Irene Kahn is a laughable, if not desperate, attempt to portray itself as the victim rather than the perpetrator of systematic cyber-attacks against the websites of human rights defender organizations, alternative media outlets and even the mainstream media.

Cyber-attacks against progressive online media outfits Bulatlat and Altermidya and human rights alliance Karapatan have been reported since 2018 due to their human rights advocacy and independent media reporting. The attacks consisted mainly of Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) where a targeted website is overwhelmed with fake traffic, making it inaccessible to users.

The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-PH) of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) that investigated the matter reported that in the case of Bulatlat and Altermidya, the attacks originated from the internet protocol (IP) address assigned to the Philippine Army. The DICT report corroborated the earlier findings of Swedish forensics group Qurium. When confronted, however, the Philippine Army merely gave the lame excuse that it was only engaged in “surfing activity.”

Bulatlat and Altermidya condemned the Philippine Army for carrying out these types of cybercrimes against independent media outfits, saying it does not adhere to its claims of respecting press freedom.

To illustrate the government’s escalating online attacks, sites accused by the military of having links to “Communist terrorist groups” were ordered blocked in June 2022, including independent news site Pinoy Weekly, and Bulatlat, the country’s longest-running online publication.

The DDOS attacks that took down websites of activist groups and of the alternative media have since spread to the mainstream media, like ABS-CBN News, Altermidya, CNN Philippines, GMA News, ONE News, Rappler, and VERA Files. The attacks have, at times, involved deletion of content from sites and the news outfits’ ability to post content.

The most recent cyberattack reported was that against the website of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in November 2023, part of a pattern of heightened cyberattacks against media outlets in the Philippines documented by the International Federation of Journalists.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as well as paid hacks of the government have also been using cyberspace with impunity to tag and brand activists and other human rights defenders as terrorists and spew lies and disinformation against them. Paul Gutierrez, executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, terror-tagged detained journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio in his column yesterday on Journal News Online.

In not a few cases, it was through websites and Facebook accounts run by units of the Philippine Army that peasants extrajudicially killed by the military on suspicion of supporting the insurgency were falsely identified as members of the New People’s Army slain in gunbattles that never happened. Karapatan reported that since the start of the Marcos Jr. regime in July 2022, there have been 42 victims allegedly killed under such circumstances. Another 67 victims were hors de combat captured or otherwise neutralized by the military but summarily executed in violation of International Humanitarian Law.

It is not the AFP that is the victim here in need of protection. Rather, the creation of its Cyber Security Group will enable the AFP to keep hammering on the country’s human rights defenders and independent and critical media outfits in a sustained campaign to discredit and vilify them on the one hand, and intensify the military’s barrage of lies and disinformation, on the other. #