(New York) -- Threats made by a Philippine censorship board’s top official against broadcasts showing lesbian relationships encourage discrimination and are a blatant assault on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

In May the chair of the MTRCB, Marissa LaGuardia, sent a memorandum to the producers of several television shows, warning them against positive depictions of lesbian relationships. The memo stated that "lesbian and homosexual relationships are an abnormality of human nature.… To show such kind of abnormality/aberration on prime-time TV programs gives the impression that the network is encouraging lesbian and homosexual relationships."

"The Philippine government's power to censor and ban films and broadcasts it deems unacceptable is a relic of dictatorship that should finally be scrapped," said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Project. "Using Marcos-era censorship powers against images of lesbian life means condemning part of the population not just to inequality, but to invisibility."

Human Rights Watch called on President Arroyo to remove the sweeping powers of the Movies and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) to edit or prohibit films and programs. In addition, the Philippine president should support a law now pending in the Philippine Congress which would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"The government should protect equality and free expression instead of singling out a group of people based on their sexual orientation," said Long. "These attempts at intimidation show why Philippine legislators need to pass legislation protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination."

House Bill No. 2784, introduced by Representative Loretta Ann Rosales, would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and provides penalties for harassment by members of the police or armed forces. The bill passed the lower house of the Philippine Congress in January, but has been stalled in the Senate.