SC aspirants grilled on Cybercrime law, Bangsamoro Agreement

MANILA, Philippines - The constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and the Bangsamoro peace deal was the main question asked of the first batch of contenders for the post of Supreme Court associate justice on Tuesday, October 23. 

The Judicial and Bar Council, the body that screens and vets aspirants to the judiciary, grilled 4 candidates on the legality of the two Malacañang-backed measures. 

President Benigno Aquino III signed into law Republic Act 1017 or the Cybercrime law on September 12. The Bangsamoro Framework Agreement, on the other hand, is the government’s main mechanism for ending the conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno asked Court of Appeals Justice Ramon Bato, one of the aspirants, what constitutes online libel. Online libel is one of the most contentious sections of the Cybercrime law, as critics say it curtails freedom of expression.

Bato said the basic element of libel is publication. If content has been made accessible to other users online, it constitutes publication. He stressed that libel is not “protected expression.”

University of Manila Law dean Jose Santos Bisquera, on the other hand, said that as long as the supposedly libelous message was made in a private communication between only the parties considered, then there is no libel. He gave the example of emailed messages – if the email could be read only by the recipient, then the sender could not be held liable for online libel.

But he said that if others were copy furnished the email, then libel was committed. He added that safeguards could be set up in communicating online. In using Yahoo messenger for example, he said that people can block other users to limit communication.

Both said they also found nothing legally wrong with the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement, which lays the foundation for a “final political settlement” with the MILF. Bato admitted, however, that he has not yet read the full text of the agreement.

Plagiarism and RH bill

JBC member Jose Mejia asked CA Justice Rosmari Carandang if plagiarism should be a ground for impeachment. SC Justice Mariano del Castillo is the subject of an impeachment complaint for allegedly plagiarizing parts of his 2010 decision in a case involving comfort women.

Carandang said she does not believe plagiarism is sufficient reason for impeachment. “It cannot equate to levels of betrayal of public trust,” she said. “Acts calling for impeachment are high crimes.”

Carandang was also asked by retired SC Justice Regino Hermosisima about the reproductive health bill which mandates the promotion of contraception.

The CA justice said she is for the passage of the RH bill. She added however that the legal problem with it will arise from having to pit the right to privacy with the government's right to push for reproductive health measures.

‘Dignified silence’

The candidates were also asked about Sereno’s policy of "dignified silence," which puts more premium on written decisions as expression of the magistrates' stance  rather than that of his interaction with the media.

Carandang said she agrees with upholding dignified silence because decisions reflect the beliefs and ideas of magistrates, adding it negates the need to engage in political discussions. 

Bato said he also lauds Sereno's initiative to adopt the said policy.

Charter change

Another candidate who was interviewed was Sandiganbayan Justice Maria Cristina Cornejo, who was asked by retired SC Justice Regino Hermosisima about changing the 1987 Constitution. 

Cornejo said that if the constitution will be amended, it should be done through a constituent assembly, because the elected congresspersons represent the people. She added that the House of Representatives and the Senate should vote jointly.

The two chambers of Congress voting jointly or separately is one of the gray areas in amending the law of the land, because the 1987 Constitution only states that the “Any amendment or revision of this Constitution may be proposed by the Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members . . .”

The second batch of contenders to the post vacated by Sereno will be interviewed on October 25 from 9 am-5 pm. These candidates are Judge Adoracion Cruz-Avisado; CA Justices Magdangal De Leon, Isaias Dicdican, Jose Reyes, Noel Tijam; CA Presiding Justice Andres Reyes; former University of the Philippines Law Dean Marvic Leonen; and former Energy Secretary Raphael Perpetuo Lotilla. - Rappler.com