Manila: The defence department stood firm on its reported purchase of electronic surveillance equipment, reasoning that the devices — worth millions of pesos in taxpayers’ money — would be used against terrorists and are not for political purposes.
“The Department of National Defence emphasises that all its purchases are in line with its constitutionally mandated duty of safeguarding the nation and its people,” Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in a statement on Thursday.
The department was compelled to issue the clarification following statements issued by the political opposition saying that the administration of President Benigno Aquino III has allocated P135 million (Dhs11 million) for the purchase of electronic surveillance equipment from Germany.
Representative Tobias Tiangco of the congressional district of Navotas said that the surveillance devices were intended to be used to monitor the private communications of opposition leaders.
“We can only assume that the purpose of spying and monitoring the opposition is political. Someone in Malacanang (residential palace) would want to engage in political espionage to gain some advantage,” Tiangco was quoted as saying in a report by Manila Standard Today.
Gazmin admitted that the government had indeed purchased the electronic equipment, called the Radio Frequency Test Equipment (RFTE). But said the gadget won’t be used against the political opposition.
The Philippines is due to hold its next presidential elections in May 2016.
“RFTE has been identified as a capability requirement of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and is intended to boost the latter’s capacity to combat terrorism and protect the Filipino nation and its people. Furthermore, the acquisition project falls within the ambit of the Human Security Act of 2007 or the ‘Act to secure the state and protect our people from terrorism’,” Gazmin said.
“Simply put, the RFTE is intended for counterterrorism and monitoring the activities of those who intend to wreak havoc and sow terror in our communities. The acquisition of such equipment is meant to safeguard the Filipino people and not to violate the rights and intrude on the privacy of our citizens,” according to Gazmin.
According to report, the RTFE has the capability to home in and intercept calls and text messages sent within a 500-metre radius of the eavesdropping device as long as the listener knows the number of the calling device.
The Philippines has laws protecting privacy including the use of listening devices. Such regulations, like the Anti-Wiretapping Law, state that it is illegal to tap into and listen to private conversations over the phone unless such action is covered by a court order.
One observer said that with the pending action by the DND is bordering on the illegal.
“What the DND is implying is that it is alright to use spy equipment as long that you are in government,” the observer said.