MANILA (UPDATE) - A group of veteran journalists, lawmakers, human rights defenders and Constitution framers have filed a petition against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 at the Supreme Court, the latest to challenge the measure that they described as a "clear and imminent danger to free speech."
The petition, first filed through email on Wednesday, also sought a plea for a temporary restraining order to stop the implementation of the law.
Petitioners include journalists and columnists led by Ma. Ceres Doyo, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Maria Ressa, and John Nery, Senators Leila de Lima and Francis Pangilinan, Constitution framers Florangel Rosario-Braid and Edmundo Garcia, former Commission on Human Rights chair Etta Rosales and former lawmakers.
Petitioners Chel Diokno, Erin Tañada and Rep. Kit Belmonte of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) physically filed their petition at the high court Thursday morning. FLAG also acts as the petitioners' counsel.
Named as respondents were government officials who are part of the Anti-Terrorism Council led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, while the council itself and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency were also impleaded.
In the group's 73-page petition, petitioners said the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) poses a "clear and imminent danger to free speech."
"By its very architecture, the ATA is a weapon against constitutionally protected speech and speech-related conduct. To begin with, it creates the new speech crime of Inciting to Terrorism (Section 9, ATA) and then ties this to a new definition of the crime of terrorism. This new definition of terrorism, found in Section 4 of the ATA, is breathtakingly vague and overbroad," the petition said.
Citing the late Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin as an example, the group said calling on the people to mass up along EDSA, a main thoroughfare in Metro Manila, could be interpreted to mean "inciting people to engage in acts intended to cause extensive interference with or damage to critical infrastructure."
Critical infrastructure, under the law, includes a system or asset essential to the delivery of essential public services whose incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on national defense and security, national economy and public safety.
Petitioners pointed out that calling people to gather in a public place to petition the government for redress of grievances is protected speech under the Constitution. And because the Anti-Terrorism Act regulates speech, it comes with a heavy presumption of invalidity and should undergo the strict scrutiny test.
The strict scrutiny test simply means the law must be "reasonably and narrowly drawn to fit the regulatory purpose, with the least restrictive means undertaken." Not so in this case, according to the petitioners, because it broadly infringes on protected freedoms.
Compared with the Human Security Act of 2007, the law which it replaced, petitioners alleged the ATA's coverage is broad as it punishes acts based on intent and purpose, regardless of stage of execution and even if there is no actual death, injury or damage.
In contrast, the Human Security Act punished specific crimes as acts of terrorism if intended to create a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.
The petitioners added the law is also vague because it does not give fair notice that a contemplated speech is prohibited and does not provide clear guidelines for law enforcers to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
The lack of discernible standards, the group said, means the law is incomplete as it unduly delegates to the Anti-Terrorism Council, composed of executive officials, the legislative power to "criminalize" an act.
This also means law enforcers are given "unfettered discretion" to authorize warrantless arrest and prolonged detention without charge of persons suspected of terrorism, usurping the functions of the courts.
Petitioners also objected to warrantless arrests made solely on the basis of the Anti-Terrorism Council's authorization and the 24-day detention without charge, which is beyond the 3-day limit under the Constitution in cases of rebellion and invasion when the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is suspended.
The ATC, they added, is also given unbridled discretion to designate terrorists and terrorist groups and the Anti-Money Laundering Council the power to freeze their assets without due process.
They also said allowing military personnel to make arrests violates the constitutional principle of civilian supremacy and the doctrine of separation of powers.
Progressive groups led by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) also physically filed on Thursday morning a copy of their petition which they originally sent by email to the Supreme Court on Sunday.
He said the new law will also not stop them from holding protest actions during President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address on Monday.
"Lalo sigurong tumatapang ‘yung mga tao habang ipinipilit nila itong masasamang batas at patakaran."
(As authorities insist on implementing this awful law, people become more fearless.)
In a statement, BAYAN's fellow petitioner, Karapatan, accused the Philippine government of submitting an erroneous report to the United Nations Human Rights Council tagging human rights defenders and civil society organizations in the Philippines as "communist front organizations" and "terrorists."
"The Philippine government has resorted and continues to resort to hurling false, malicious, and baseless allegations against Karapatan and other organizations before the public and in forums such as international bodies, in spite of independent audits and reports providing hard evidence debunking such allegations," Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.
"This report further proves that the Anti-Terrorism Act will only legitimize condemnable practices such as red-tagging, that the law is a State weapon against dissent," she added.
At least 3 more groups are expected to file new petitions Thursday: the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a group of Muslims and a youth group, raising to 15 the total number of petitions against the Anti-Terrorism Act.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the new measure earlier this month despite heavy protests, with security officials and the law's authors asserting that it has enough safeguards against possible abuse.