Lawmaker’s bid to strike name off narco-list moves forward as CA rules ‘national security’ can’t be used to deny privacy rights

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 06 2020 06:51 PM

MANILA — A lawmaker’s bid to remove his name from the Philippine government’s narco-list moved forward Monday when the Court of Appeals reversed its earlier ruling and instead required government agencies to submit all information which led to his inclusion in the watchlist.

Leyte Rep. Vicente “Ching” Veloso had filed with the Supreme Court in April 2019 a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas data, more than a month after his name was included in the government’s watch-list or “narco-list” just before the 2019 midterm polls.

A writ of habeas data is a remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee engaged in the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information about the person. A favorable ruling can order the destruction or correction of erroneous data.

The high court referred the petition to the CA Former Special Eighth Division, which in November last year remanded it to the Office of the Ombudsman on the ground that a pending administrative case had been filed against Veloso at the anti-graft agency.

But in an amended decision penned by CA Associate Justice Apolinario Bruselas Jr., the appellate court said it would proceed to resolve the petition because of the importance of the case and the significance of issues involved.

In the ruling, the CA said Veloso’s right to informational privacy was violated because he was not informed of, nor was given the chance to refute the information gathered about him by various government agencies including the interior department, the police, military, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency who all claimed to have conducted some form of validation.

It noted that even the complaint before the Ombudsman was just a one-paragraph allegation without any supporting affidavit. 

“Absent any clear showing of what information about the petitioner had been collected, how they were accumulated, stored, processed, and how its integrity was maintained by the respondents, the Court can only surmise and presume that these informational details are private and directly impact the petitioner's right to privacy. It is the very evil of unbridled intrusion into private personal information that the writ of habeas data seeks to defeat,” the Court said, as it stressed the importance of transparency in government. 

Veloso’s honor and reputation, an important aspect of his right to privacy, was also affected, the Court said, citing domestic and international legal bases.

“The release to the public of a list of drug dealers or narco list that includes his name and which was drawn from the information- gathering activity of state agents has conveyed the idea that the petitioner is a criminal engaged in dealing dangerous drugs. Thus, the petitioner stands to lose his reputation, considering his years of public service in all of the three branches of government and his stature in the legal community,” it ruled.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RULING

But the ruling’s significance goes beyond Veloso and his bid to clear his name, as the CA rejected the government agencies’ invocation of “national security” to justify refusal to divulge information relating to the government’s war on drugs. 

Citing the Supreme Court’s April 2018 resolution in Almora vs. Dela Rosa, a pending case which challenged the validity of the drug war, the CA said the SC has set the bounds on national security: “In the face of judicial inquiry, mere invocation of national security, or of any alleged legitimate purpose, absent substantial evidence to justify State action will not suffice.”

SC magistrates in that case chastised the Office of the Solicitor General for its refusal to submit reports on routine police operations, when they failed to show “the country's territorial integrity, national sovereignty, independence, or foreign relations will be compromised or prejudiced by the release of these information and documents to this Court or even to the public.”

For the same reasons, the CA said government agencies failed to show that the territorial integrity of the country would be compromised by a disclosure of the petitioner's personal information which supposedly led to their inclusion in the narco-list.

“The narco list is touted to contain the individuals who are influenced by or engaged in illicit drugs trade. If this be so, then the fair, proper and rule-of-law way to proceed is to charge the petitioner with the appropriate criminal charges in court. In that manner, there can be no independent recourse by the petitioner to a writ of habeas data,” the court said.

“The public revelation of such a list of individuals without the commensurate criminal investigation, indictment, and prosecution, is fertile ground for a petition for a writ of habeas data, not to mention exposure to possible criminal and civil complaints for defamation,” it added.

But the CA clarified it was not going against the Executive branch’s discretion to investigate crimes and the government’s privilege to keep state secrets.

“In our system of checks and balances, courts assume the rigid responsibility of preserving and strengthening the rule of law. Unabashed deference to the executive department would undermine the structural checks and balances scheme central to the constitutional separation of powers amongst the three branches of government,” it said.

“That a man may be denied his rights at the mere whim of government is anathema to a democracy, if the ideal that indeed freedom prevails in our land is to be upheld,” it explained. 

President Rodrigo Duterte, just before the midterm elections last year, accused 46 local officials of involvement in the illegal drug trade. Data gathered by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group showed 26 of the 36 who ran for local positions won.

Duterte also named several personalities — politicians, policemen, soldiers, judges — in his previous narco-list, some of whom have ended up killed or jailed.

Meanwhile, thousands have been killed under his drug war. Official figures place the number of fatalities at less than 6,000 although human rights groups say more than 30,000 have been killed without the benefit of undergoing trial.