Academics at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UP Diliman) have accused top higher education officials of “effectively sanctioning book purging”, in a sharp exchange this month over the removal of so-called ‘subversive’ literature from university libraries.

The chair of the Philippines Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Dr Prospero de Vera III defended the right of state universities to remove reading materials deemed ‘subversive’.

That was after three institutions – Kalinga State University, Isabela State University and Aklan State University – in September turned over books and documents to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

De Vera, who was previously a professor at the University of the Philippines, characterised the decision of universities to remove materials from their libraries as an exercise of academic freedom, sparking outrage and ratcheting up tensions between universities and the authorities over the erosion of freedoms.

In a statement on 2 November, De Vera said: “The decision to remove books and other reading materials from a university library is done by individual higher education institutions in the exercise of academic freedom.

“There are reasons why some higher education institutions have decided to remove materials donated by government-declared communist-terrorist groups in their libraries. School authorities in these higher education institutions are in the best position to explain why.”

And in a veiled attack on UP Diliman after it criticised CHED for supporting book purging, De Vera remarked: “It would be best for the chancellor of UP Diliman and other officials to be more prudent, circumspect, respectful and discerning in issuing statements, especially involving the exercise of academic freedom of other higher education institutions.”

The UP Diliman university council, led by chancellor Professor Fidel Nemenzo, said in a statement on 8 November: “The removal of books based on ideological criteria is anathema to academic freedom and undermines the role of academic institutions as repositories of thought.

“This sets a dangerous precedent and [is] a move towards the censorship of our universities.”

Several individuals and organisations – including academic and student groups, librarians and others – have weighed in.

An organisation of progressive teachers and education workers – the Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND) – denounced De Vera’s statement. It said academic freedom is based on the free and fair exchange of ideas, not on censorship.

“The purging of books from public libraries is one of the severest forms of censorship, and De Vera’s statement effectively sanctions it. CHED and De Vera must stop misrepresenting academic freedom,” CONTEND said this week.

Removal of books

An alliance of professors, researchers, university administrators and education professionals called Academics Unite for Democracy and Human Rights, said that at Kalinga State University in Tabuk City, north of the capital Manila, a librarian was forced to remove books deemed ‘subversive’ from the shelves when policemen and soldiers barged in and inspected the library on 1 September.

Just a week later, the president of Isabela State University in northern Luzon province imposed a ban on ‘communist’ books in the library and voluntarily turned them over to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

Aklan State University on the Island of Panay promptly “surrendered” all the “subversive textbooks and reading materials” in its library when the Aklan Police Provincial Office “reached out” to the university and asked it to turn over books not considered “mentally healthy” for students, the alliance said.

At the time, CHED’s De Vera defended the decision of the three universities to remove ‘subversive’ materials.

But universities and library organisations, including the University of the Philippines Library Council, have spoken out against banning materials. The library council issued a statement on 7 November saying: “Book purges are practised by dictatorships, not democracies.”

“Insurgencies are contained by addressing their root causes, not by banning books that explain how and why they happen,” it said, and called on librarians and university officials to “protect our libraries from any form of censorship, and to resist any actions that will compromise academic freedom”.

The National Union of Students of the Philippines said in a 9 November statement that the purge of books “effectively exacerbates our already anti-democratic education, where students with critical political values are at risk of being vilified, red-tagged and, worst, physically harmed by state agents”.

CHED supported removals

The books removed reportedly covered peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines – a broad coalition of unions, agricultural groups, indigenous and rights groups as well as leftist political parties and resistance armies.

In July the Philippines Anti-Terrorism Council, created under a 2020 Act – which is itself being challenged in the Supreme Court – designated the NDF a “terrorist organisation” over its links to communist rebels.

CHED’s regional office in the Cordillera Administrative Region last month issued a memorandum calling on all universities and colleges, public and private, to surrender allegedly subversive materials from their libraries to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

It defined subversive materials as “literature, references, publications, resources and items that contain pervasive ideologies of communist-terrorist groups”. CHED continued: “Left unprocessed and unguarded”, these materials may “radicalise the mind”.

The academics’ alliance said that “as the government further escalates its [anti-communist] campaign, the attack on academic freedom has recently taken on another extremely palpable and ominous form. Books and the libraries which house them have now become targets.” It added: “Books themselves have become criminalised.”

Extension to universities of anti-communist action

In the House of Representatives recently, the opposition Makabayan bloc – a coalition of parties and civil society groups – filed a resolution seeking a probe into the “dubious removal” of books and materials from state university libraries over alleged subversive content.

The bloc claimed that the handover of such materials was instigated by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). “NTF-ELCAC has absolutely no right to intrude, infringe or dictate upon the country’s state universities and libraries,” they said.

In December 2018 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used an executive order creating the NTF-ELCAC as part of his war against communist insurgents. The counterinsurgency effort has spilled over into universities.

“These intrusions into universities occur as the Duterte government intensifies its counterinsurgency war against the longest-running communist rebellion in the world,” said Karlo Mongaya, who teaches Philippines studies at UP Diliman and is a member of Academics Unite for Democracy and Human Rights.

Students, faculty and institutions have been targeted by vicious red-tagging or accusations of being “communist rebels” – a label that is often the prelude to arrests on trumped-up charges or worse, extrajudicial killings.

“In the Philippines, the deadly red-tagging of students, faculty and workers in the academic sector has witnessed an unprecedented upsurge under the Duterte administration,” said Academics Unite for Democracy and Human Rights in an online petition launched last month.

“As the government further escalates its campaign, the attack on academic freedom has recently taken on another extremely palpable and ominous form. Books and the libraries which house them have now become targets.” The petition called for a united stand to protect libraries and universities from military and police incursion.

While many of the books so far surrendered deal with previous peace negotiations between the NDF and the Philippine government, the text of the petition said: “The call of the military and police to university authorities to turn over all so-called ‘subversive’ and ‘mentally unhealthy’ books means that they are aiming for a more comprehensive cleansing and censorship of libraries. These are grave and dangerous precedents for society as a whole.”

This week the alliance launched a digital archive of publications which it described as “free and easily accessible resource of endangered books and materials” that the government deems subversive.