High Court asked to declare SIM registration law unconstitutional

April 17, 2023

Photo by NUJP


MANILA — Various groups asked the Supreme Court to declare the SIM Registration Act unconstitutional as it constitutes prior restraint.

“The SIM Registration Act is an overbroad law that reaches into protected freedoms and restrains the free flow of ideas and information. It conditions the exercise of speech through the use of SIM cards to a mandatory disclosure of a specific combination of information that is supposed to tie every SIM card to a specific person,” the petition read.

Petitioners are asking the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order and/or a writ of preliminary injunction; declare the law unconstitutional; and order respondents to refrain from using, storing, transferring, as well as to destroy data gathered so far.

As of this writing, only 37 percent of SIM cards have been registered despite the official deadline set next week. This means that more than half of the SIM cards in the Philippines will be deactivated by then unless an extension is approved.

The Junk SIM Registration Network includes one organization and nine individual petitioners from different sectors— among the petitioners are the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Bulatlat.com editor-in-chief Ronalyn Olea, former Bayan Muna Rep. and Lumad leader Eufemia Culliamat. Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), Alberto Roldan of Pamalakaya and Danilo Ramos of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP).

They are also joined by Llorre Benedicto Pasco, mother of two Tokhang victims; Dean Matthias Razi Timtiman Alca, a representative of the LGBTQIA+ community; Maded Battara III, an information technology professional; and Michael Christopher de Castro, a lawyer.

Battara who is the spokesperson for the network said that access to information is directly tied to freedom of expression and requiring such registration will heavily restrict this fundamental right for Filipinos who are unable to register due to logistic or private concerns.

The petition also questioned the law’s requirement to disclose information that circumvents the requirement of a search warrant. “The chilling effect lies not just in what it prevents, but it compels all to sacrifice,” the petition read.

Prior restraint

The SIM card registration law is supposedly the Philippine government’s response to put a stop to scam text messages. This is aimed to “provide law enforcement agencies the tools to resolve crimes which involve its utilization and a platform to deter the commission of wrongdoings.”

Experts earlier pointed out that SIM card registration cannot address text scams and that those behind it and other crimes can circumvent this regulation.

Read: IT experts: SIM card registration will not cure text scams

Read: SIM card registration prone to hacking, non-solution to spamming

“None of the petitioners are scammers or spammers. The same can be said of the vast majority of the 110 million other Filipinos who stand to be affected by the overbroad act,” the petition read. “On its face, the law chills all speech done through SIM cards if disclosure is not made.”

Petitioners stressed that the law created an on-demand police line-up and fishing expedition, describing it as “antithetical to established constitutional policies guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Circumventing requirement of judicial warrant?

Apart from the restraint, petitioners also said that the law also tramples upon privacy rights and guaranteed protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The Petitioners have a reasonable expectation of privacy over their SIM cards, and they have a right to control who gets to have, to keep, and to pass on the information it contains. As such, the law’s compelled disclosure, which is not sanctioned through a search warrant, and the subsequent exempted access of law enforcement, constitutes an unreasonable search under the Constitution,” the petition said.

They added that petitioners also have subjective expectations of privacy due to the nature of their work, citing the attacks against journalists and human rights defenders who are among those asking the High Court to strike down the controversial law.

“All communications through cellular networks; all conversations between husbands and wives, lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, priests and penitents, journalists and sources – all these become fair game to law enforcement agencies’ on-demand fishing expedition enabled by the SIM Registration Act,” the petition read.

In its 59-page petition, they also argued that the people’s access to justice will also be impeded as the Philippine justice system’s technology-driven rules and regulations that were introduced to afford ordinary folk speedy disposition to their cases and free access to courts rely on the “foundation built on unimpeded access to SIM cards.”

Journalists and their sources

For media practitioners, the law weakens the protection of the sources who may wish to remain anonymous.

According to NUJP chairperson Jonathan de Santos, the law may even affect their willingness to contact and share information with journalists. “In a way, it will add to the chilling effect.”

“We (journalists) already have a hard time convincing them to release such stories, and ensure their safety. The registration, with all its required information, can let others easily identify our anonymous sources which was only possible before after issuing a court order, ” he added. (DAA) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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