Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - "The first victory of the people and of freedom of expression."
That was how Philippine Senator Teofisto Guingona III described the Supreme Court's issuance yesterday of a temporary restraining order (TRO) suspending implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act for 120 days while the high tribunal decides whether the law violates civil liberties.
The court in a unanimous resolution directed respondents led by President Benigno Aquino and top administration officials to comment within 10 days on 15 petitions filed by Guingona and journalists' groups, bloggers and netizens seeking to scrap a harsh penalty for online libel of up to 12 years in prison.
In its en banc meeting, the high tribunal set oral arguments on January 15 on the case, according to the minute resolution. It said that the order was effective immediately. It said that for 120 days, the administration should refrain from enforcing the law.
The announcement of the TRO was met with jubilation by some 500 protesters massed in front of the court. Wearing black and bearing placards, the protesters called for the impeachment of Aquino for signing the cybercrime law, which took effect on October 3, and chanted "no to cyber martial law."
"The administration will always respect the legal processes that are issued by the court," Palace deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters.
She called the court action a "provisional remedy" amid intense opposition to the law. She said this should not be construed as "judgement on the merits."
Senate's lone dissenter
"A TRO against the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is the first victory of the people and of freedom of expression," said Guingona, the lone dissenter in the Senate to the measure.
"For a court to issue a TRO unanimously is a strong message of its belief that the dangers and fears of the people are real and must be addressed," he said.
The respondents included Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., and Philippine National Police Director General Nicanor Bartolome.
The issuance of the TRO came as the Department of Justice (DOJ) was preparing to draft the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the law slammed by many sectors for including libel as a cybercrime, among others.
Saying the DOJ operated "under the framework of the rule of law," De Lima said she would abide by the high court order which, she noted, arose from "an exercise of the power of judicial review.''
"We respect and we will abide by it," De Lima, who was in Zamboanga City, said in a text message.
De Lima said that "in due time," the DOJ would present formally before the high court the arguments outlined in the "historic" forum on the cyberlaw, which was conducted yesterday at the Land Bank of the Philippines building in Manila.
"Our advocacy for a safe cyberspace and interdiction of organised crime will continue,'' De Lima said.
Word on the high court's issuance of a TRO came as the DOJ, along with the Department of Science and Technology, ended its one-day forum aimed at clarifying misconceptions on the controversial law.
The forum was called so that stakeholders could provide inputs on the "collaborative'' IRR to be drafted with the DOJ and other concerned government agencies.
Assistant Justice Secretary Geronimo Sy has said some of the provisions that petitioners said were unconstitutional were "the least of our worries.''
He said that it was not true that the jail time for those found guilty of online libel would be up to 12 years, adding that the maximum jail term was eight years.
Sy also said that contrary to claims by some groups, the provision that would restrict or block websites was "not a takedown" website policy.
He said that applying this section was not easy considering there were certain conditions needed such as "clear and present danger" to necessitate the restriction or blocking of websites.
He also explained the tedious process involved in seeking this restriction.
Congress will wait
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that with the TRO, bills introduced to amend the cybercrime law would have to wait until the court decided on its constitutionality.
"[The TRO] does not stop us from amending the law if there is a necessity but in my case, I suggest that we wait for the Supreme Court to make a decision so that we will know what are the defects that they want us to correct. We are not infallible people," Enrile told reporters.
Sen. Edgardo Angara, one of the authors of the law, shared Enrile's position. "Let's take a pause out of respect for the Supreme Court, after all the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of any legal question."
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who earlier said she expected the Supreme Court to strike down as unconstitutional the cyberlaw, welcomed the court move. "This would be a landmark decision. It will concern the right to free speech in the digital age," Santiago said.
Kabataan Rep. Raymond Palatino said that Congress should take the 120-day respite as its "cue" to expedite the approval of repealing or proposing ammendatory bills to the cybercrime law.
May not be needed
"There is material time to amend the law. What is needed is the support of the Congress leadership," Palatino said.
"It's possible if certified by the president as urgent, or if the House leadership considers it a priority measure," said ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio.
Quezon Rep. Lorenzo "Erin" Tanada III said that the proposed changes in Congress might not be necessary. "There is a possibility that those particular sections that are being questioned may be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Hence, amendments may not be necessary," Tanada said.
With reports from TJ Burgonio and Gil C. Cabacungan