MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez Wednesday said the antiterrorism law allowed the wiretapping of everybody, including journalists, if they were terror suspects, but a Roman Catholic bishop warned of “greater tumult” if the law was abused and applied indiscriminately to those opposed to the Arroyo administration.
Gonzalez stressed, however, that approval of the Court of Appeals was needed before anyone could be bugged under the Human Security Act of 2007.
While the HSA states that communication between journalists and their sources should not be bugged, media practitioners can still be subjected to wiretapping if they are suspected of involvement in terror activities, Gonzalez told reporters, explaining the parameters of the law.
The HSA also prohibits the wiretapping of communications between lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, and confidential business correspondence. Government officials are not included in the ban.
Gonzalez said the law could be implemented by about August or September.
He said that wiretapping was “intrusive,” but that freedom was not absolute.
Talking to a terrorist, however, does not automatically make a journalist a terror suspect.
“If you are a journalist, you are free from wiretapping because the law says that journalists and their sources of information cannot be subjected to wiretapping,” the justice secretary said. “The fact that your source is a terrorist does not make you a terrorist per se.”
“But if the journalist is now a suspect, then he can be wiretapped. You have first to be a suspect,” Gonzalez said.
He said a person was considered a terror suspect if he was “contaminated.”
“For example, there is suspicion against you. You are now part of the group that is planning to terrorize, to do harm to the state,” he said.
Gonzalez also said that being a leftist did not automatically make someone a terrorist.
“Nobody is immune to the possibility of wiretapping but it must be predicated on the fact that he is a suspect,” Gonzalez said.
A dangerous law
Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Yñiguez branded the law as dangerous.
“The anti-terror law will lead to greater tumult, especially when used to deal with those who do not agree with government’s thinking,” Yñiguez said in an interview over Catholic-owned Radio Veritas.
The bishop noted the law’s stringent measures against those suspected of terrorism, which covers offenses ranging from coup d’etat and piracy to manufacture of explosives and highway robbery.
Activists fear that the law could be easily abused because of its broad definition of terrorism, including creating fear among the people.
The HSA was scheduled to take effect in the middle of the month, but Deputy National Security Council Adviser Pedro Cabuay on Tuesday said its implementation was likely to be postponed.
According to Cabuay, the law’s implementing rules and regulations have yet to be formulated and public discussions on its ramifications have to be conducted.
Besides, the HSA, or Republic Act No. 9372, “An Act to Secure the State and Protect our People from Terrorism,” has not been published in a newspaper of general circulation.
The government is scheduled to hold a nationwide information campaign about the features of the law, starting with Cagayan de Oro City on July 8-10.
Martial law powers?
Yñiguez said that based on what he heard from others, the government would be given martial law powers.
The bishop wished Congress and the Supreme Court would take more pains to review the law.
“Otherwise, it will be the occasion for so many abuses, especially with the way the government is being run nowadays,” he said.
Yñiguez expressed concern over the interpretation and enforcement of the HSA’s Section 19 and 26 that deal with detention of and travel restrictions on terror suspects.
“These provisions are dangerous to the citizens, and could be used by people in the government who have no conscience to persecute those that they consider to be enemies,” he said.
Under Section 26, the person charged with the crime of terrorism or conspiracy to terrorism is entitled to bail when the evidence of guilt is not strong.
However, the court, upon the petition of the prosecutor, may limit the right of the accused to travel. The suspect may be prohibited from leaving the city or municipality where he is living unless permitted by the court.
The suspect may also be placed under house arrest by the court, during which he may not use telephones, cell phones, e-mail, computers, the Internet or other means of communication until otherwise ordered by the court.
Section 19 says that in the event of an actual or imminent terrorist attack, the suspects may not be detained for more than three days without the written approval of a municipal, city, provincial or regional official of a Human Rights Commission or judge of the municipal, regional trial court, the Sandiganbayan or a justice of the Court of Appeals nearest the place of the arrest.
If the arrest is made during Saturdays, Sundays, holidays or after office hours, the arresting police or law enforcement personnel shall bring the suspect to the home of any of the officials mentioned that is nearest the place where the accused was arrested.
The approval in writing by any of the officials must be obtained by the police or law enforcement personnel within five days after the date of the detention of the suspect.
If within three days after the detention and the suspect’s connection with the terror attack or threat is not established, he or she shall be released immediately.
List of terrorists
The country has no list of terrorists except those recognized by the United States and the European community, according to Gonzalez.
Asked if the Philippines would adopt these lists, he said “yes.”
Based on evidence
He said that being considered a terror suspect should be based on evidence.
Authorities should study well reports stating that a person is a suspect before court permission is sought for the wiretapping, the justice secretary said.
“When you say he’s a suspect, it’s not just because somebody whispered to you that this fellow is a terrorist. That will have to be done through proper investigation,” he said.
Appeals court’s permission
After the investigation is over, authorities, including the Department of Justice, should file a petition at the Court of Appeals seeking permission for the wiretapping.
Gonzalez said he was required to write a letter to the Supreme Court asking it to designate the Court of Appeals division that would be authorized to rule on requests for wiretapping.
Under the HSA, the petition can be filed without the need to inform the concerned party so as not to defeat the purpose of the request.
Asked why government officials were not exempted from being bugged, Gonzalez said even people in public service could be traitors. But he said the President should not be wiretapped because she could not be sued.
Asked if members of the communist-led National Democratic Front could be wiretapped, the justice secretary said: “I suppose so, as long as there’s a clear definition that we consider them terrorists.”
The Human Security Act has safeguards against its abuse, like paying P500,000 in damages for every day that someone is detained or arrested without a warrant. Gonzalez considered the hefty fine “practically violative of the Constitution.”
“The Constitution speaks of no excessive fines. But here, one offense is already worth P500,000. So this is one of the safeguards in place,” he said.