MANILA, Philippines—The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended indefinitely its order suspending the implementation of the cybercrime law, which would penalize with imprisonment offensive posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites and which critics said would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.
The court ruling came a day before Congress adjourns for the election without the House of Representatives acting on the long-pending proposed Freedom of Information Act, regarded as the foundation of any democratic state conscious of the people’s right to know. This means the bill is again dead in the water and will be back to square one in the new Congress.
“The temporary restraining order (TRO) in the cybercrime case is extended until further orders from the court,” the tribunal’s public information office said in a text message to reporters.
“We submit to the court’s discretion and respect such a decision to extend the TRO,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told Agence France-Presse in a text message. “It’s not a total defeat. It’s just a TRO pending determination of the merits of the petitions.”
President Aquino signed the law in September last year, amid huge online protests, to stamp out cybercrimes such as fraud, identity theft, spamming and child pornography.
‘It’s not perfect law’
But opponents swiftly sued over provisions that authorize heavy prison terms for online libel and give the state powers to shut down websites and monitor online activities.
The high court last October issued a four-month injunction that was to have lapsed on Wednesday, as it scrutinized the law for possible violations of constitutional provisions on freedom of expression.
De Lima did not say how long the new injunction would be in force and Supreme Court officials declined to comment.
“As the President said, it’s not a perfect law, and even the solicitor general had questions about the take-down provision,” Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a text message. “We will abide by the processes and decisions of the court.”
‘Like,’ or ‘share’ punishable
During the court hearings, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said that a simple “like” or “share” of a Facebook post, or a “retweet” on Twitter, of a libelous statement constituted a violation of the law.
“Hallelujah! TRO will prevent chilling of exercise of freedom of speech pending decision on merits of constitutionality of cybercrimes prevention law,” University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque said in a text message.
Roque was among over a dozen petitioners who had argued against the law’s constitutionality in the hearings called by the Supreme Court. He opposed the online libel provisions in the law.
“We urge the Supreme Court to repeal the entire law so that Congress can draft another law that would only cater to specific cybercrimes like child pornography on the Internet,” Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said in a text message.
He said the entire cybercrime law was unconstitutional, including online libel. He also urged the high tribunal to strike down the libel provision in the Revised Penal Code.
“No one should be imprisoned for the mere exercise of the constitutional right to free expression,” Colmenares added.
Back to square one
As in the last Congress, the freedom of information (FOI) bill, which has been pending for over a decade, met its death in the House of Representatives.
With only one session day to go before the present congress adjourns, the FOI bill has yet to be debated in the House, making it impossible to be approved on second and third reading. President Aquino also refused to certify it as urgent. He promised to pass the measure when he ran for President.
The Senate has long passed its version of the measure.
The bill was only sponsored in the House plenary last week after much delay getting it out of the public information committee chaired by Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone.
But debates did not push through because of threats from the House minority to question the quorum and have the session adjourned should the bill be taken up.
With the bill stalled and dying in the plenary, it would have to be refiled in the next Congress, where it would be back to square one and would need to start at the committee level again.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño, who supported an FOI bill but rejected the Palace amendments to the current version of the measure, said it was the President’s own men who killed it in Congress, taking their cue from Aquino’s apparent lack of interest.
“Evardone’s throwing in the towel is just the last nail on the coffin that was designed and built by the President himself, whose refusal to certify the bill or even include it in his priority measures spelled its doom,” Casiño said in a recent statement.
He said it was ironic that the President spoke at the 5th Global Organizations of Parliamentarians against Corruption when it was his administration that killed the measure that was supposed to help battle corruption.—With reports from TJ Burgonio and AFP