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Pandemic Forces Judiciary to Hasten Digitalization

Constitutional questions pose a challenge to making digital courtrooms a reality.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“Even during emergency, rule of law prevails.”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen made the statement as he discussed how the judiciary, like nearly everyone else, had to work remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government lockdown measures that resulted in the closure of courts nationwide came as a shock to the Supreme Court, Leonen admitted on Wednesday, June 3, during the second session of the “Eyes on the Court” webinar series organized by Court Appointments Watch PH. 

Justices convened en banc to try to make sure courts continued to function, while protecting the judiciary’s 25,000 employees, who are also “frontliners,” he said.

But many court employees, including judges in Metro Manila, declined the high tribunal’s offer to do mass testing, which was “very strange,” Leonen said.

So the justices, themselves forced to use the “Zoom” web conferencing app for the first time on April 17, had to take a hard look at how courts could use digital technology to dispense justice.

“The court has been trying to address a lot of the dysfunctions that we have seen in the past that we are slowly realizing,” Leonen said during the webinar.

Logistical, legal issues

The process began well before the pandemic, but the switch to digital technology is not easy and many logistical and legal issues needed to be ironed out, Leonen pointed out.

Constitutional questions pose a major challenge to efforts to make digital courtrooms a reality, he said.

“All of them produce substantial and technological questions that all of us need to collectively address,” Leonen said.

For instance, can videoconferencing ensure a speedy and public trial that must be guaranteed under the constitution? How about the right to confront a witness against the accused and the process of authenticating evidence, which is required by due process?

Still, the high court was able to make technological inroads. Amendments to the rules on civil procedure and the rules of evidence, to allow electronic filing and service of documents, took effect on May 1.

Digitalization 2.0

With the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine in mid-March, the high court issued a series of administrative circulars, the first being that courts should not shut down and keep a skeletal staff. It directed executive judges to assign courts to be on standby for priority cases.

Another circular called for the use of hotlines so judges and personnel need not be in court all the time, to avoid exposure to the virus. The high court also added pilot areas for hearings via videoconference, which began in Davao City in September 2019. 

Promulgations of difficult cases have been done online, but the court is still making adjustments and identifying exceptions. Even the high court is going back to meeting physically, Leonen said. 

“A lot of the disadvantages of the digital medium and the platforms that are not really fit for many of our court activities should be done away with,” the former University of the Philippines law dean said.

Last year, an assessment found out that the first “e-Court program” had a lot of fatal errors, such as the use of an outdated platform and lack of cybersecurity precautions. 

A reboot, called “e-Court 2,” seeks to improve operating systems as well as managerial and feedback processes. The high court will start procurement for e-Court 2 soon, Leonen said.

Access to justice during the pandemic

The Supreme Court continued efforts to ensure that the poor and the marginalized would have access to the justice system despite the pandemic, he said.

Leonen heads two subcommittees tackling access to justice: underserved areas, which focuses on places affected by cultural or historical oppression or marginalization; and expanded legal aid through the “Enhanced Justice on Wheels” (EJOW) program.

The high court is looking to retool the EJOW, a mobile court that also offers services such as mediation and legal information, he said.

“One thing that we were unanimous with was that the courts will not shut down. The courts never shut down, we only adjusted drastically our operations,” Leonen said. 

Since the lockdown, courts have released more than 22,000 detainees to decongest jails. Courts have also conducted over 7,000 videoconferencing activities, he said.

‘Teach context of the letters of the law’

As the judiciary figures out a way to harmonize the law and the need for digitalization, Leonen urged the public to be more understanding of the courts.

He challenged the public to be more critical but also engage more constructively with the judiciary.

Lawyers should fully understand the dynamics of society, while law schools must look beyond the need to hurdle the bar examinations and teach law students, who are more attuned to digital technology, the “context of the letters of the law,” he also said.

“There are structural problems, but every judicial system exists within a structure of a society. Social justice is not only for the courts to solve, we are only attending on it from a certain approach. We all have a role to play,” Leonen said.

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PCIJ is a member of Court Appointments Watch PH. The CAW webinars and its coverage are made possible by the support of The Asia Foundation and Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

KMP: No tributes to Cojuangco from farmers

Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco died last night, Tuesday, June 16, at an expensive private hospital in Quezon City due to, according to a news report, lung cancer. He was 85.

All news stories about him so far describe him as a business tycoon, a sportsman, a sports patron, a philanthropist, and political kingmaker. His death even merited a message from Malacañan Palace. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, Jr.,” Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said.

None of the announcements and reports has yet to call Cojuangco what he was accused of for most of his life, a crony of Ferdinand Marcos. In fact, Cojuangco was not just a crony but was said to be the biggest one.  In an article in December 30, 1990, the Los Angeles Times described him as “second only to Marcos in the systematic looting of the Philippines.”

The sector who complains to this day that they were wronged by Cojuangco is one of the country’s poorest: coconut farmers.

The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said they cannot condole with the family of the deceased, as the Ph105-billion coco levy fund Cojuangco was accused of pocketing in the heydays of the Marcos dictatorship and plunder remain unreturned and unremitted to its true owners.

“Patay na si Danding Cojuangco Jr., hindi pa naibabalik sa mga magsasaka ng niyog ng pondo ng coco levy na dinambong ng mga promotor ng coco levy fund scam,” KMP national chairperson Danilo Ramos said in a statement hours after the announcement of Cojuangco’s death.

It was said that Cojuangco used the coco levy fund to acquire companies, land, banks and other businesses that made him not just one of the richest men in the Philippines but throughout the world.

Danding and Marcos

The book “Some Are Smarter Than Others” by former exile and national librarian Ricardo Manapat described Cojuangco as one of Marcos’ closest and most loyal cronies. They have in fact developed interlocking godfatherships of their sons and grandsons.  Danding even named his eldest son Marcos Cojuangco.

Their business partnership started with rice importations that also involved Juan Ponce Enrile and Jose Aspiras, two other cronies. And when he faced the possibility of being summoned to testify in United States courts in connection with charges of monopolizing coconut trading, Marcos appointed him “Ambassador-at-Large” to prevent that from happening.

At the height of his power under the Marcos dictatorship, Manapat said Cojuangco controlled corporate assets worth $1.5 billion which at the time was 25% of the country’s gross national product. In an April 2, 1990 report, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cojuangco was into rice cartels, sugar, flour, groceries, cement and soft drinks aside from coconut, sugar, agri-business, banking and others.

Danding’s wealth enabled him to own vast land holdings in Central Luzon, Central Visayas and Palawan where he kept hundreds of high-powered firearms wielded by hundreds of guards who were reportedly trained by Israeli mercenaries. He also collected Ferraris and Rolls Royces and owned expensive race horses imported from all over the world, the book revealed.

The coco levy fund

The coco levy fund was the biggest taxation scheme in the country at the time of its imposition in 1971. It exacted taxes on coconut meat produced by farmers amounting to billions of pesos and allowied both Cojuangco and Juan Ponce Enrile to become major players in the global trade of coconut products.

The fund the levy created was supposed to be spent for support activities within the industry, collected from farmers as soon as they sold their products to traders. They were supposed to be issued receipts as proof of their ownership of the fund but majority of them never received the receipts. None of them benefitted from the fund and have in fact suffered because of it due to lowered incomes.

Manapat’s book said that at the height of the coco levy’s implementation, the coconut farmers only earned $19 a month on the average. This meant that they could only afford 10% of the minimum requirement for their family’s food.  Years after Marcos had been deposed and the coco levy fund was ordered by the Supreme Court to be given back to its real owners, many beneficiaries have died still demanding to given back the money owed them.

Nearly a president

But Danding remained rich and powerful after his friend and benefactor was deposed. He never went to jail and kept control of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) and other big businesses. He was even a candidate for the presidency in the 1992 national elections.

The KMP revealed that in 1998, when his good friend Joseph Estrada was elected president, Cojuangco’s 4,661-hectare landholding in Negros Occidental spanning two cities and seven towns were exempted from actual land distribution through a joint agribusiness venture between the ECJ Corporation and 1,200 Certificate of Land Ownership Award holders.

Danding’s SMC is also the primary initiator of flexible labor policies in the country that promoted contractual labor and laid off tens of thousands of workers across SMC companies, the KMP said in its statement.

“Danding Cojuangco Jr. is the embodiment of the landlord-comprador-bourgeoisie ruling class who have enriched and empowered themselves through exploiting the Filipino masses, especially workers and farmers,” Ramos said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Ressa, Santos’ cyberlibel conviction part of Duterte’s political vendetta, critics say

The guilty verdict on Rappler’s chief executive officer Maria Ressa and former staff Rey Santos Jr. earned swift condemnation from rights groups, calling the decision by the Manila Regional Trial Court (MRTC) part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s political vendetta against critical media outfits.

In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said June 15, 2020 shall be remembered as a dark day, not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos.

Ressa and Santos were found guilty of cyberlibel by MRTC Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa and were sentenced to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail. The verdict has cleared Rappler of liabilities.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the cyberlibel case against Ressa, Santos, and Rappler over a May 2012 article on his alleged links to the late former chief justice Renato Corona.

Maria Ressa (with microphone) holds a press briefing after conviction of cyberlibel today in Manila. (Photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)

Swift condemnation

The NUJP said the verdict has implications far beyond the case filed against Ressa and Santos as it affirmed the State’s manipulation and “weaponization” of the law to stifle criticism and dissent.

The NUJP disagreed with the decision, saying it allowed the retroactive application of the law for a supposed offense committed before it existed by the simple expedience of declaring a typographical correction a “republication”.

The group also said the court recalibrated the prescription period for the offense.

“In effect, the trial was a test run for the latest weapon the State can now wield to intimidate and silence not only the media but all citizens who call out government abuse,” the NUJP said.

Arts and media alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI) said the decision successfully turned the Cybercrime Law into a potent tool for political vendetta against journalists and citizens whose only “crime” is to be perceived as critical of government.

“If left unchallenged, the verdict would make oppression of press freedom and free expression the law of the land, and shatter the Bill of Rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It would render journalists and citizens defenseless against government and officials who will use anything and everything to evade accountability and to silence those who dare ask questions,” LODI said.

The group also said the case was really about President Duterte it accused of not being able to stand independent-minded journalists and journalism.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) said the decision was a “menacing blow to press freedom” and adds a new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the Philippines.

FOCAP said it is extremely alarmed over the decision.

“Convicting Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. for an ‘updated article,’ that was already beyond the prescriptive period for libel smacks of a targeted attack on media that has been publishing not only glossy stories on the administration,” the Photojournalists Center of the Philippines said in its own statement.

The People’s Alternative Media Network also blamed the Duterte government, saying that “[t]aken as a whole, this barrage of legal cases and accusations against Rappler, ABS-CBN, and other independent journalists is clearly a part of the administration’s continuing attack against the media — with a determined aim of instilling fear among media practitioners committed to reporting the truth and holding the administration into account.”

Human rights group Karapatan said Ressa and Santos’ conviction sends the dangerous message that journalists who expose misdeeds of those in power are more vulnerable to retaliation to silence them.

“It also sends an even more dangerous message to the public that anyone and everyone can be criminalized on their views and opinions,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

“With the conviction of Ressa and Santos, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the killings and threats against journalists, the numerous violations faced by Filipinos on a daily basis and the passage of the terror bill, a full-blown dictatorship is made more palpable,” Palabay added.

Families of political prisoners said it is alarmed with the conviction, saying it clearly sets a dangerous precedent that those who expose the government’s misdeeds will be persecuted.

“As how political prisoners were arrested for standing up against oppression, the verdict dramatizes how laws are being twisted to silence dissenters and truth-tellers,” Fides Lim, KAPATID spokesperson, said.

National Union of People’s Lawyers president Edre Olalia for his part said the verdict is a “most disappointing and bad news.”

“Once again, a number of our courts have missed the noble opportunity to hand out verdicts saying they will not be a party to the insanity and legal bullying,” Olalia said.

“The message is clear, the arrogant powers can squander time, resources and power on getting back at those asserting their rights and calling them out,” he added.

(Photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘We will fight’

In a press briefing after the promulgation, lawyer Theodore Te said they still have to study the entire decision and decide on how to contest the verdict.

Ressa for her part said the guilty verdict was not unexpected given the context of everything that has happened to Rappler in the four years of the Duterte administration.

“I still face seven criminal charges. It is not unexpected and, at the same time, I feel like we will keep fighting,” Ressa told reporters in a briefing after the promulgation.

“I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale, we are meant to make you afraid. So, I appeal again, don’t be afraid…We will fight,” Ressa said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

International lawyers groups call on Duterte to veto anti-terrorism bill

By Joseph Cuevas

Hundreds of lawyers and legal organizations from all the world expressed “deepest concern and consternation” over the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill of the Philippine government, which they criticize as violative of international laws.

In an open letter addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte, justice secretary Menardo Guevarra and all members of the Philippine Congress, the groups said they are alarmed with potential abuses the measure will unleash upon the Filipino people once implemented.  

“We, the undersigned lawyers and legal organizations from around the world, write to express our deepest concern and consternation about the Anti-Terrorism Bill, also known as House Bill 6875 and Senate Bill 1093, which was apparently passed by a virtual vote in Congress and now transmitted to President Duterte to sign into law,” the groups said in the letter, dated June 11.

The lawyers urged Guevarra in his review of the bill to reject both versions Constitutional as well as procedural grounds and for Duterte to veto the measure.

They also urged members of Congress to withdraw their affirmative votes of the bills and act to protect the basic human rights of the Filipino people.

“The international community is alarmed by the apparent abuses of power and civil unrest that the law will bring about. It will suppress and criminalize free speech and dissent, label and punish political enemies as terrorists, and unjustly deprive them of basic internationally recognized human rights and due process,” the letter reads.

The lawyers said the bill contains overbroad and vague definitions of terrorism that not only criminalize freedom of speech, association, assembly, and the press.

They added that so-called safeguards included in the bill are weakened by the vague definitions of terrorism and protecting public safety and can actually serve to crush legitimate forms of protest, such as striking workers’ picket lines and peaceful mass demonstrations. #

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The full text of the letter:

June 11, 2020

Dear President Rodrigo Duterte, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, and members of the Congress of the Philippines:

We, the undersigned lawyers and legal organizations from around the world, write to express our deepest concern and consternation about the Anti-Terrorism Bill, also known as House Bill 6875 and Senate Bill 1093, which was apparently passed by a virtual vote in Congress and now transmitted to President Duterte to sign into law. In this crucial moment, we urge the Justice Secretary to reject the bill on Constitutional as well as procedural grounds. Further, we urge President Duterte to veto the bill. For members of the Congress, if you are recorded as voting yes, we urge you to speak up and withdraw your vote. You all still have the opportunity to act to uphold and protect the basic human rights of the Filipino people.

The international community is alarmed by the apparent abuses of power and civil unrest that the law will bring about. It will suppress and criminalize free speech and dissent, label and punish political enemies as terrorists, and unjustly deprive them of basic internationally recognized human rights and due process. The bill greatly expands the powers of the executive by the creation of the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), composed of presidential cabinet officials and retired generals who serve under the pleasure of the President, with the power to declare and proscribe organizations and parties as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers without ample and fair opportunity to be fully heard in a court of law. The bill also authorizes police or military to arrest people without a judicial warrant and detain and investigate a suspect without charges for a maximum of 24 days.

The bill contains overbroad and vague definitions of terrorism that not only criminalize virtually all acts of freedom of speech, association, assembly, and the press, but also criminalize intent justified by baseless, politically motivated accusations. The so-called safeguards included in the bill that claim to protect the people’s freedoms are weakened by the vague definitions of terrorism and protecting public safety and can actually serve to crush “legitimate” forms of protest, such as striking workers’ picket lines and peaceful mass demonstrations.

This bill comes as the attention of the world has been drawn to the War on Drugs carried out by the current administration. These policies have authorized police and armed vigilantes to kill tens of thousands of mostly poor people with impunity. A report mandated by a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to investigate the Philippines’ human rights situation was released recently on June 4th and concluded that extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and barriers to accessing justice were already rampant, even before this bill was introduced.

The Anti-Terrorism Bill is unnecessary and is a tyrannical upgrade of the Philippines’s already existing Human Security Act. The bill largely contravenes the 1987 Constitution which was a democratic victory following the Filipino people’s ouster of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and the end of Martial Law. It is abhorrent and immoral to pass this legislation while the global community is still suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Filipino people do not deserve a state-sanctioned attack against their basic rights while they struggle to heal from the pandemic. Instead they deserve for their elected legislators to utilize their power, energy, and resources to fight for mass testing, healthcare, and economic relief.

Further, we are troubled that the Anti-Terrorism Bill was certified in a highly irregular manner. There are over 300 members of the House of Representatives. Only around 20 were present in person during the vote, with the rest voting remotely over Viber, and not a proper virtual platform. Multiple members have expressed that the votes they cast were different from the votes that were recorded. A few have withdrawn their vote since that time, stating that they did not have enough time to study the content of the bill before the vote. Therefore, at minimum, the certification of the bill should be rejected on a procedural basis to preserve the integrity of democracy. We oppose any intent to railroad this legislation when there are other more urgent matters being faced by the Filipino people that its government should act swiftly to address.

The Philippines has ratified the International Covenant on CIvil and Political Rights. Among the provisions of the Covenant is Article 19, which states: 1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference and 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek and receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. The Anti-Terrorism Bill violates all the rights that the Philippines has agreed to guarantee its people.

As legislators and officials of a democratic nation, we ask you to do justice for the Filipino people. The international community remembers the dark period of Philippine history under Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and Martial Law. Just as we expressed support for the Filipino people’s rights then, we amplify the people’s call now to not repeat history. Say no to the Anti-Terrorism Bill. Say yes to honoring the Filipino people’s legacy of resisting tyrannical rule and defending democracy through any means. #

Organizational Signatories:
• International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL)
• Arab Lawyers Association (UK)
• Asociación Americana de Juristas

* Asociación Nacional de Abogados (ANAD) de México
• Asociación Venezolana de Juristas
• Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers
• Center for Research and Elaboration on Democracy (CRED)
• Central Arizona National Lawyers Guild
• Corporación Solidaridad Jurídica de Colombia
• Democratic Lawyers Association of Bangladesh (DLAB)
• FAI-Rade
• FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
• Filipinx Law Student Association at UC Davis School of Law
• Foundation Day of the Endangered Lawyer
• Group for International Legal Intervention (GIGI)
• Haldane Society for Socialist Lawyers
• International Commission on Labor Rights (ICLR)
• Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice
• National Association of Democratic Lawyers of South Africa (NADEL)
• National Lawyers Guild (United States)
• National Lawyers Guild – NY Chapter
• National Lawyers Guild – International Committee
• People’s Law Office-International Office
• PROGRESS Lawyers Network (Belgium)
• Progressive Lawyers Association – Turkey (ÇHD)
• SURES – Venezuela
• Ukrainian Association of Democratic Lawyers


Individual Signatories:
• Alihan Pilaf, Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD), Izmir Turkey
• Aliya Karmali, Oakland, CA
• Angela Cornell, Cornell University Law School, Ithaca, New York, USA
• Ashwini Sukthankar,New York, USA
• Asia Parks, NLG GA, Atlanta, Ga, USA
• Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director, Project South. Past president, National Lawyers Guild., Atlanta
• Basawa Prasad Kunale, Bengaluru, India
• Beth S. Lyons, IADL, New Jersey, U.S
• Brittany Burback, Sublime Law, Phoenix, AZ

* Bruce Nestor, National Lawyers Guild – Minnesota Chapter, Minneapolis, MN
• Ceren Uysal, Progressive Lawyers Association, Vienna
• Ceren Yilmaz, CHD , Ankara, Türkiye
• Charlotte Kates, National Lawyers Guild International Committee, Vancouver, Canada
• Chloe Czabaranek, San Jose, CA, USA
• Coleen Rowley, retired FBI Division Legal Counsel, Apple Valley, MN, USA
• Court M. Lee, Esq., Sige! LGBTQIA+ Filipinos, Astoria, USA
• Daniel Meyers, Natiomal Lawyers Guild -NYC, New York
• David L. Mandel, National Lawyers Guild, Sacramento
• Dianne Post, Facilitator, Central Arizona National Lawyers Guild, Phoenix, AZ, USA
• Eduardo R.C. Capulong, CUNY School of Law, NY, USA
• Elvan Olkun, Kocaeli Türkiye
• Emily Brandt, NLG Fresno Chapter, Fresno
• Erdogan Akdogdu, ÇHD, Izmir / Turkey
• Evelyn Dürmayer, IADL representative at the UN in Vienna
• Felicity Gerry QC, Crockett Chambers and Deakin Uni, Melbourne and Carmelite Chambers, London, Melbourne, Australia
• Gilbert Saucedo, National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles
• Halime Senli, Antalya, Turkey
• Hoda Mitwally, New York City, United States
• Huwaida Arraf, Esq., civil/human rights attorney, Macomb
• Jackelyn Mariano, National Lawyers Guild, International Committee, Elmhurst, NY, USA
• Jaclyn Quiles-Nohar,Queens, NY
• Jan Fermon, Secretary General, International Association of Democratic Lawyers
• Jeanne Mirer, President, International Association of Democratic Lawyers
• Jeffrey Frank, National Lawyers Guild, Chicago, USA
• Jeffrey Petrucelly, National Lawyers Guild, Boston, Suffolk County, MA, USA
• Jerome P. Wallingford, San Diego, California USA
• Jet Orbida, PeacePond Farmers Assoc., Binalbagan, Negros Occidental, Philippines
• Jo Dereymaeker, PROGRESS Lawyers Network, Antwerp, Belgium
• Johanna Gusman, Human Rights Lawyer/Activist , Washington, DC USA
• John I. Laun, Laun Law Offices, Middleton, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
• John Philo, Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, Detroit
• John Witeck, Hawaii Workers Center, Honolulu
• Judith Mirkinson, National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco, CA, USA
• Judy Somberg, National Lawyers Guild, USA, Cambridge, MA, USA

* Sasamoto, Secretary General, Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific (COLAP)
• Kari Rudd, San Francisco
• Karla Maria Moreno, National Lawyers Guild, Miami, United States
• Kathy Johnson, National Lawyers Guild
• Katrina Asuncion, Filipinx Law Students Association, UC Davis School of Law, Davis, CA, United States of America
• Kristina Mazzocchi, MM&J, PLLC, Brooklyn, NY, USA
• Lamis J. Deek, J.D. , Global Justice & Human Rights Law Network, National Lawyers Guild, New York
• Larry Redmond, National Lawyers Guild, Chicago
• Louis Dussan – Presidente, Asociacion Americana de Juristas Rama Colombia, Bogota Colombia
• Luís Carlos Moro, from Brazil and General Secretary of American Association of Jurists.
• Marie-Claude St-Amant, Montreal, Canada
• Marjan Kris Abubo, Davis, United States
• Marjorie Cohn, National Lawyers Guild, International Association of Democratic Lawyers
• Mark Stern, NLG IC, Somerville Massachusetts
• Max Boqwana, National Association of Democratic Lawyers of South Africa (NADEL)
• Maximiliano Garcez, Advocacia Garcez, Brasília, Brazil
• Mehmet Altuntas, CHD, Mersin, Turkey
• Mürsel Ünder, Cagdas Hukukcular Dernegi , Turkey
• Naim Eminoglu, ÇHD (Progressive Lawyear Association), Ankara, Turkey
• Natalie González, Esq., New York, USA
• Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, National Lawyers Guild, New York
• Nergiz Tuba Aslan, CHD, Izmir, Turkey
• Philip Althouse, National Lawyers Guild, International Committee, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
• Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College, University of London; Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Colchester, England
• Raymond Lahoud, Esquire, Norris McLaughlin, P.A., Allentown, PA
• Ria Julien, Sugar Law Center, New York, NY
• Richard P. Koch, National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco
• Robert Atkins, UK
• Sabah al-Mukhtar, President, Arab Lawyers Association (UK), London
• Sefa Aydogan, Turkey
• Seraldi Seda, ÇHD, Turkey Istanbul

* Susan Scott, National Lawyers Guild, Inverness, California
• Suzanne Adely, National Lawyers Guild, Yonkers
• Thomas Schmidt, European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights (ELDH), Düsseldorf, Germany
• Troy Osaki, Seattle, USA
• Ugur Esat Kesküs, CHD (Turkiye), Istanbul / Turkiye
• Ümit Büyükdag, ÇHD, Türkiye
• Urko Aiartza, Eskubideak, (Basque Democratic Lawyers assoc. ) &ELDH, Donostia, Basque Country
• Vanessa Ramos, Asociación Americana de Juristas, New York
• Vannalee Cayabyab, Filipinx Law Student Association at UC Davis School of Law, Davis, CA, USA
• William Quigley, Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans, Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana US
• Yevgenii Gerasymenko, PhD, Ukrainian Association of Democratic Lawyers

Lawyers group says peaceful protests during quarantine legal

By Joseph Cuevas

A group of human rights lawyers reminded authorities there is no law prohibiting rallies under the government’s Covid19 quarantine.

Reacting to a Philippine National Police (PNP) warning that protesters may be arrested if they join planned Philippine Independence Day protests Friday, June 12, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) said the anti-coronavirus law does not authorize the arrest of citizens exercising their freedom of expression.

In a statement, NUPL said Republic Act (RA) No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and RA) 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases do not prohibit rallies.

“They do not have provisions allowing arrests simply on alleged violation of mass gathering or quarantine rules,” NUPL said.

The PNP is reported to have issued threats to arrest protesters against the controversial anti-terrorism bill due for signing into law by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Various groups have announced a protest event dubbed the “Grand Mañanita”, in clear reference to PNP National Capital Region Police office commander Debold Sinas’ controversial party last May.

The police general’s birthday popularly is perceived as a blatant violation of the government’s own prohibitions against mass gatherings during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Department of Interior and Local Government also said public gatherings during the current General Community Quarantine (GCQ) are prohibited while Malacanang yesterday said that mass gatherings are only limited to 10 persons.

NUPL however pointed out that arrests of protesters, such as those that happened against Bulacan and Marikina relief workers, Caloocan jeepney drivers and anti-terrorism bill protesters in Cebu City, are not prohibited by the Bayanihan law as well as various Inter-Agency Task Force rules and executive orders on the ongoing quarantines.

The group added that the Bayanihan law and the orders are not criminal laws that allow the arrests of protesters.

The NUPL also pointed out relevant laws and statutes such as Article III of the 1987 Constitution, the 1985 Public Assembly Act or B.P. 880, Article 21 of 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights safeguarding the rights of citizens to air grievances.

Various groups all over the country are planning on coordinated rallies as opposition to the prospective anti-terrorism law snowballs. #

Government employees oppose ‘mass layoff circular’ amid pandemic

By Joseph Cuevas

Government employees raised alarms over a new budget circular instructing agencies to realign their budget for Covid-19 programs, saying the new measure is anti-labor and anti-poor.  

In an online press conference Tuesday, June 9, the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE) said Department of Budget and Management (DBM) National Budget Circular (NBC) No. 580 would only result in mass layoffs and budget cuts to programs and services for the people.

The new DBM measure, dubbed the Adoption of Economy Measures in Government Due to the Emergency Health Situation, was issued last April 12.

It derives legal basis from Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan Act of 2020 that gave emergency powers to President Duterte to raise and realign  funds for government’s efforts against Covid-19.

Section 4.3 of the circular orders the discontinuance of hiring of job orders except those considered as frontliners during the ongoing state of public health emergency, COURAGE said.

The National Housing Authority (NHA) initially released a memorandum effecting the circular but, after a dialogue with union members, issued an addendum assuring that no workers would be affected.

COURAGE also said government agencies are realigning or have already realigned their work and financial plans to comply with the circular, sacrificing many social service programs and poverty alleviation plans.

Among such programs may include the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (KALAHI) and Sustainable Livelihood Program (SLP) program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), COURAGE revealed.

COURAGE national president Santiago Dasmariñas Jr. said as many as 600,000 government employees all over the country, especially job-order and contractual employees, are worried.

Dasmariñas said COURAGE wrote DBM Secretary Wendel Angel Avisado last April 29 to express opposition to the circular, particularly DBM’s plans to reduce or remove funds for government employees’ wages.

“The COS, JO workers, and the like, need their wages now, more than ever, in this time of pandemic caused by the COVID-19. And it will be an injustice if the budget intended for their wages shall be SLASHED and cut which will result to their eventual termination from work,” COURAGE’s letter states. #

Video shows unidentified man intimidating household of Cebu engineer arrested for joining #JunkTerrorBill rally

By FYT

“He was just arrested now, but next time, he might be exchanging fire with government troops, and that’s when you’ll say it’s too late, when he’s already in a coffin,” the man can be heard saying in Cebuano in the video obtained by FYT.

He was referring to Al Ingking, a 25-year-old electrical engineer and one of the “Cebu 8” who were arrested during a rally against the anti-terrorism bill on June 5.

According to Ingking’s family, the man and his companion arrived at their house in a silver Toyota Avanza with plate number YGB-903 at 1:50 PM on Monday, June 8. The incident happened a few hours before Ingking and 7 other protesters were released from jail.

The undidentified men came with a threat, Inking’s sister told FYT in a phone interview.

“Badlonga na ninyo kay sa sunod ninyo mahibaw-an naa na na siya sa kabaong (Warn him or he’ll be in a coffin the next time you see him),” one of them who claimed they were from a certain government agency allegedly said.

“The men started asking questions about my brother like whether this was really my brother’s place of residence, and whether he has been an activist for a long time,” Ingking’s sister said.

“My brother was merely exercising his right of freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble, to speak out on the possible horrors of what the Anti-Terrorism Bill could bring, and yet these men have the gall to invade our house; to intimidate, insinuate, and make fallacious statements against my brother and activists,” she added.

Ingking said he is not affiliated with any progressive group but he shares the growing clamor to junk the anti-terrorism bill as a concerned citizen.

“Umabot na siya sa boiling point. I felt that I really had to act, ‘Please do something and don’t let this opportunity pass by’. To use my voice, however little it may be, before it is silenced by this anti-terrosim bill.” Ingking told FYT in a phone interview.

“I felt that it was already too much – how the government railroaded the Anti-terrorism Bill instead of focusing on what’s important for the society today, which is the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Ingking graduated cum laude in electrical engineering at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 2016.

“Our parents taught us that we should not only be excelling in academics or other stuff,” he said, stressing that “we should also have the heart for the masses, have the empathy for others. #

Ilang mga organisasyon, ipinanawagan ang paglaya ng PISTON 6 at Cebu 8

Nagtipon ang UP Diliman Drivers Association, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) at Sine Sanyata upang ipanawagan ang pagpapalaya ng PISTON 6 at Cebu 8.

Ayon kay Elmer Bong Labog, Chairperson ng KMU, ang pagtitipon ay pagpapakita ng pagkundena sa pagaresto sa Piston 6. Dagdag pa niya, ang ginawa lamang ng mga drayber ay paglaban sa kagustuhan na bumalik sa lansangan pagkatapos ng dalawang buwan na lockdown na walang seryosong ayuda.

Ipinahayag din nila na suporta para sa Cebu 8, na inaresto nitong Hunyo 5 pagkatapos ng isang mapayapang protesta kontra sa Anti-terror Bill

Parehong kinukondena ng KMU at ng nga organisasyon ang panghuhuli sa PISTON 6 at CEBU 8, at kagyat na palayain ang mga binilanggo.# (Con Montajes/Kodao)

Anti-terrorism measure fuels Duterte’s tyranny, Catholic Church says

The social action arm of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines expressed opposition to the anti-terrorism bill passed by Congress this week, saying the measure threatens the very values of freedom, respect, justice and compassion.

In a statement Saturday, June 6, Caritas Philippines said it strongly condemns what it calls blatant manoeuvring of the legislative processes in the passage of the prospective Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 by both houses of Congress.

Caritas said the measure aims to criminalize or to arbitrarily brand as terrorists those perceived to be opposing the Rodrigo Duterte government.

“We denounce the obvious circumvention of the democratic processes just to obey and please the self-interests of the legislators and the autocratic rule of the president,” the statement reads.

Aimed to replace the Human Security Act of 2007, the measure awaits Duterte’s signature to become law .

Caritas said the new anti-terror bill targets activists, many of whom suffer from red-baiting by government officials and the military.

“We cannot let this happen. This not only intolerable, this is inhuman, unjust and unlawful. Thus we urge everyone to register opposition against the bill which to our firm belief will further re-enforce tyranny and totalitarianism,” Caritas said.

Earlier, several bishops expressed opposition to the measure that allows warrantless arrests and detention without charges for up to 24 days.

Caritas said its condemnation of the measure is in adherence, defense and protection of the rights and welfare of the Filipino people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Human rights defenders, activists, lawyers groups, journalists and artists said they will question the measure’s constitutionality even before it is signed into law by the president. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Quarantine Curbs Access to Information

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

IS FREEDOM of information one of the casualties of Covid-19?

Since April, the staff of the Digital News Exchange (DNX), a community-based news site in Bacolod City, has had zero success in getting a response to its requests for information on Covid-19-related procurement and cash aid.

They’re not the only ones. Journalists around the country say both national and local government agencies have either delayed or denied their information requests. Officials, they said, were particularly reluctant to release information that would hold them accountable for their spending.

So far, only one in 10 of the Covid-19 requests filed in the government’s eFOI portal between March 13 and May 27, 2020 has been granted. Most of these requests were for information on Covid-19 spending and financial assistance, according to data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the manager of the eFOI platform where information requests from national government agencies in the executive branch are filed. 

The PCOO has so far received 1,332 requests from journalists and the public for Covid-19-related information. More than half of those requests are still being processed while about a third have been denied supposedly because they were lodged in the wrong agency, the requester did not provide his/her complete details, or the information is already available online. (See Charts 1 and 2.)

Most of the denials were requests for Covid-19 spending or Social Amelioration Program (SAP) data from the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Interior and Local Government, and Budget and Management. The PCOO refused to entertain these requests; instead it advised requestors to ask their local government unit or call a DSWD hotline number. (See Table 1 below.)

Like many journalists around the country, DNX was particularly interested in how funds allocated for Covid-19 relief have been spent. It is working on a project called Money Watch to monitor how money from Bacolod City’s P100-million calamity fund was allocated. 

It’s been eight weeks since the DNX staff sent the city government and its Department of Social Services and Development a request for data on pandemic-related spending. But up to now, they have not heard back.

City officials were not always so stingy with information. In mid-March, as the lockdown started, they responded promptly when DNX reporters asked about Covid-19 preparations. This positive response prompted DNX reporters to forego filing formal information requests for the time being. They also feared that formal requests would be processed only when the quarantine was already over. But in April, when DNX asked for spending details, city officials were no longer as open as before. “Finding sources is as difficult as catching a greased pig let loose,” said Julius Mariveles, DNX’s executive editor. 

Like city officials, barangay officials, who are responsible for releasing cash subsidies, delivering relief goods, and keeping the peace in their communities, were also unwilling to give information. Mariveles says being “out on the field” has become a common excuse for these officials’ inability to provide data.

DNX has so far released just one Money Watch story. It revealed discrepancies in the number of targeted and actual beneficiaries of the city’s Covid-19 financial assistance, as well as the lack of reports from several barangays.

The national government has allocated at least P500 billion to address the impact of the pandemic that has killed nearly a thousand Filipinos and placed millions out of work because of the lockdown. This amount does not include emergency funds that local governments can tap in addition to any revenue and savings that they may also decide to use for Covid-19-related expenses. 

DNX’s small team of four reporters tried their best to report on how Bacolod apportioned public funds for coronavirus projects. But they were at their wit’s end: With limited access to data and sources plus pandemic-related constraints on field reporting, there was only so much they could do.

In Metro Manila, Cebu, and other parts of the country, journalists who shared their experiences with PCIJ encountered varying levels of difficulty, depending on the type of information they were requesting. While information about the national government’s plan and budget to fight the virus are readily available online, getting more detailed information on how the plans are being implemented and the money spent is another story. 

Obtaining details about Covid-19 spending at the local level has been especially difficult. Unlike frontline agencies at the national level, local governments do not proactively publish data on their websites. Moreover, with press briefings now online, officials and their PR staff often screen questions from the media, making it harder for reporters to demand answers. 

Since March, when government offices were wholly or partly closed, most routine requests for information have not been processed. The Philippines is among many governments in the world that had to suspend the processing of freedom-of-information or FOI requests because of the pandemic. 

The PCOO has so far issued four advisories notifying offices in the executive branch of the suspension of FOI processing. The advisories apply only to agencies covered by Executive Order 2, s. 2016, which laid out the Duterte administration’s FOI guidelines. 

On June 1, PCOO lifted the suspension of FOI processing, except in areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it said agencies with sufficient capacity can go ahead and process FOI requests despite quarantine regulations.

The other branches of government – Congress, the judiciary and local governments – were not covered by the suspension, but their responses to information requests were understandably slowed down because offices have not been in full operation for at least 10 weeks. Although the ECQ in Metro Manila was lifted on June 1, government offices still follow alternative work arrangements, which means shortened hours or suspension of certain services.

These measures have exacerbated delays in the release of information crucial for holding government accountable. For example, for over a year now, PCIJ’s longstanding request for the statements of assets of national government officials has been pending because the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to issue guidelines for releasing such documents. 

To be sure, a number of national agencies, particularly those at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have published records proactively, without the need for a formal information request. Some departments, despite operating on a skeleton staff, continue to accept and respond to requests by email. 

But things were better last year. From October 2018 to September 2019, the PCOO received 18,036 eFOI requests or an average of 347 requests per week. Nearly half of these requests were granted. During the ongoing quarantine until May 27, an average of 318 requests were lodged in the eFOI portal every week but the success rate was just 17 percent. 

According to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public-records requests must be addressed within 15 working days. Executive Order 2, s. 2016 gave executive agencies more time — not longer than 20 business days — to respond to such requests. 
 
With the lockdown, however, government agencies could not meet these deadlines. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kristian R. Ablan says PCOO suspended the required processing time because of the “justifiable concerns” of FOI officers that they may be held liable if they fail to address requests within the prescribed period.
 
FOI officers working from home said they lacked internet connection, office equipment such as laptop computers and scanners and digital copies of files. They also found it difficult to coordinate remotely with record custodians. 

The health and safety of the FOI officers were also factored in. “We didn’t want to put their health at risk during ECQ,” he says.

Jenina Joy Chavez, co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now!Coalition (R2KRN), acknowledged these difficulties. Speaking at an online forum on May 27, she said suspending FOI operations may be necessary, but she also asked whether the government has done anything to help agencies respond to information requests even during a lockdown.

“Whether or not we’re in quarantine, the importance of the right to information remains the same,” said Chavez. During the quarantine, citizens yielded or entrusted power and resources to government, she said. Transparency measures are needed so the public is able to seek accountability and protection. 

On March 29, R2KRN asked the inter-agency task force and departments implementing the government’s Covid-19 action plan for a copy of the plans and structure of the task force as well as for specific sets of documents and data held by the departments of health, social welfare, agriculture, labor, and budget, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System.

The status of this request is being published online and updated weekly by the coalition members, including PCIJ. Most of the information requested has been partially fulfilled, but most of the releases are in PDFs, not in open-data or spreadsheet format that make the numbers easier to analyze.

R2KRN publishes weekly reports on the quality of information being provided by frontline agencies. Its May 5 report said that the health department is perhaps the only government agency that collects, processes, posts, and updates information on a regular basis. 

The coalition also raised questions about the completeness of the data. For instance, the daily Covid-19 case counts do not give a full picture of how the virus is spreading. Moreover, only 1,782 of more than 23,000 registered health facilities have submitted details on health capacity and needs. “With incomplete information, it is not clear how capable the health system really is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency,” R2KRN said.

In its May 12 report, R2KRN noted the sparse data released by the DSWD’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC), where updates on Covid-19 assistance are posted.  

The DROMIC provides data broken down by province and city, but does not say how many families have received assistance. It also does not disaggregate new from cumulative data, which would have been helpful in determining the rate of response by government and private entities.

The attempt to publish the list of SAP beneficiaries was commendable, said R2KRN. 

However, most of the links are down. The list is also partial and only includes areas that have reports from the DSWD’s field offices. Information can be downloaded but only as PDFs. 

Ryan Macasero, Rappler’s Cebu Bureau reporter, says he has been able to obtain Covid-19-related information but the process has become more laborious. Getting answers from officials, who may only be reached through virtual press briefings or call and chat, has taken more time and effort. 

“It makes their lives easier, but our jobs more difficult,” he says.

What seems to work, Macasero says, is when many reporters ask the same question. 

“We back each other up in the agencies’/office’s official media group chats and say we have the same question to try to emphasize that it’s important they answer us regarding these questions, because it’s information the public needs to know.” –With additional research   by Arjay Guarino, PCIJ, June 2020