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MANILA, Philippines - (UPDATE3, 4:38 p.m.) The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously voted for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) stopping the enforcement of the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Act for 120 days.
The respondents to the petitions - President Benigno Aquino III, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., the Departments of Justice, Interior and Local Government, and Science and Technology, the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation – were given 10 days to submit their comments on 15 petitions assailing the law, which critics deem unconstitutional.
The law has drawn massive protests on and off the Internet, and sparked a flurry of web site defacements by so-called "hacktivists."
Oral arguments at the SC have been set for January 15.
Atty. Theodore Te, counsel of the media petitioners led by National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Press Institute, and Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, remarked on the development: “The TRO supposedly issued for only 120 days . . . indicates that the SC may want Congress to amend the law so that it need not rule on the matter. It may also indicate that, while the SC does not want the case [it] recognizes the "transcendental public importance" of the issues raised--which, in itself, is a victory. If this is indeed the situation, then the SC has just fundamentally altered its judicial perspective to include a strategic and calculated use of judicial avoidance and restraint, a welcome move towards stabilizing jurisprudence."
A series of protest actions have been staged in front of the Supreme Court premises on Padre Faura Street in Manila, including one today while the justices were in an en banc session.
The protesting groups, which are primarily against a provision in the law that criminalizes libel in cyberspace and grants the Justice department powers to block--without court order--access to data and potentially take down sites on a mere prima facie finding of violations of RA 10175, cheered when they heard the news, but remained adamant that the law be repealed.
Republic Act 10175, dubbed by critics as "e-Martial law," was signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III on September 12, the month of the 40th anniversary of the September 21, 1972 imposition by former President Ferdinand Marcos of Martial Law.
As many as 15 petitions to stop the enforcement of the law have been filed with the Supreme Court. Besides the petitions and the journalist-led rallies, a group of "hacktivists" calling themselves Anonymous Philippines also defaced a number of government sites, in protest of the new law. The government appealed to hackers to spare such sites, which include vital information needed by the public. The hackers, however, disowned the defacement of certain sites like Project NOAH that provides vital weather data.
Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Teodoro Casino Jr., who on Monday filed the 15th petition, said there was no question in the law's goal of addressing cybrecrime, which has now become rampant.
Casino, however, said the law's libel provisions that give the government surveillance power over the activities of a person using the Internet infringe on the netizen's privacy and freedom of expression.
The TRO was issued as the high tribunal deliberated en banc on 15 petitions from various groups and personalities from the media, lawyers’ and free-speech advocates’ sectors, all seeking a halt to implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
Earlier petitions were filed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) assisted by FLAG lawyers, the Philippine Bar Association, the Ateneo Human Rights Center and a bloggers’ group, among others.
Earlier on Monday, two other petitions were filed, one by Casiño's fellow Bayan Muna solon Neri Javier Colmenares and lawyer Edsel Tupaz, and another by the National Press Club.
The most contested provisions across all petitions are in Sections 4,5,6,7, 12 and 19, or the so-called “take-down” provision that most constitutionalists deem the most dangerous to civil rights. It grants the Justice department the power to block access to data, and potentially shut down web sites, on a mere prima facie finding of a violation of RA 10175. This, even without a court order.
Constitutional rights infringed
The PBA petition said among the constitutional rights infringed by the law are those against double jeopardy and bill of attainder, besides the provision that automatically makes the penalties on e-libel and other violations one degree higher, compared to libel in the traditional media.
Casiño, who has just filed his candidacy for senator, told reporters that their petition to nullify the law is similar to the previous pleas against the law's "e-libel" provisions, Section 19 or the "take down clause," and the authority given to the Department of Justice to apprehend suspectede cyber criminals even without warrants of arrest.
According to the lawmaker, even people who text and call using cellular phones with Information Communications Technology or ICT device could be accused of e-libel.
Dubbed by critics as "e-Martial Law," the act was signed by President Benigno Aquino III last September 12 days before the commemoration of the 40th year of the September 21, 1972 imposition of Martial Law by President Ferdinand Marcos.
In its 61-page petition, PiFA and Casiño appealed to the high court to require the government to cease and desist from implementing the law while the petition is pending.
The act violates the freedom of speech, expression and of the press, unreasonable searches and seizures, right to privacy, due process, equal protection of the law, among others, according to the petitioners.
They added that the law "is constitutionally infirm on its face for being vague and overbroad,” a criticism shared by most other petitioners.