By Raïssa Robles
This question is being asked of me ever since newspaper reports came out that Senator Vicente Sotto III denied Friday that he was the lawmaker who had inserted the libel clause in the Cybercrime Prevention Act (Republic Act 10175).
One commenter name @Anton bluntly asked me:
Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III denied that he was the one behind the insertion of a libel clause in the new anti-cybercrime law, at a Press Media Week forum in Cebu City Friday. So, what happened to the admission of Sotto’s chief of staff Villacorta that it was Senator Sotto who inserted libel as a ‘content-related offense’ in Republic Act No. 10175 (the Cybercrime Law)? Who’s lying again?
My answer requires a somewhat lengthy explanation. After reading it, I think you can come to the conclusion yourself whether Senator Sotto lied to journalists in Cebu.
To start, I would speculate that Senator Sotto is banking on the fact that people don’t understand how the Senate records the lawmakers’ actions almost every step of the way.
Let me first explain how a bill becomes a law in the Senate (and the House follows the same procedure).
Step One: A senator files a bill at the Senate Bills and Index Section. The bill’s title is read out on the floor and referred to the proper Senate committee for further action. This is referred to as the FIRST READING.
Step Two: The Senate committee where the bill is referred to gathers all the similar bills filed on the same subject. The committee schedules public hearings and notifies various public interest groups about the bill in question. Please note that most bills die in the committee and it is up to the committee chair to decide which bills he or she would push.
The committee chair comes up with an amended bill that takes into account the public hearings, letters and suggestions and what the chair reads in the media about the pending bill. If there are more than two bills on the same subject, the chair consolidates all these bills into one bill which is called the Committee Report. The CR is also given a new number as a Senate bill.
In the case of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, there were 15 separate Senate Bills and three Senate Resolutions filed by various senators. The committee chaired by Senator Edgardo Angara came out with a consolidated bill in Committee Report No. 30 and named this new bill SB 2796.
Step Three: The CR is again referred to the Senate plenary for deliberations. This is called the SECOND READING. During the Second Reading, any of the senators can suggest amendments or interpellate the Senate committee chair or even try to stop the bill dead in the water (as what is happening to the Reproductive Health Bill). It is up to the committee chair whether or not to accept his colleagues’ proposed amendments. The amendments can be very minor (such as a word or phrase here and there to make the meaning clearer). Or they can be very drastic such as the insertion of entirely new sections. It is this form of insertion that the public has to watch out because no more public hearing is held on such substantial amendments.
Step Four: After the Second Reading or the period of interpellation, a clean copy of the bill is prepared with all the amendments that were proposed on the floor and accepted by the committee chair. The adjusted bill still has the same Senate Bill number. The only way to distinguish it from the bill that was prepared by the Senate committee is by looking at the appended phrase “third reading version”.
Step Five: The bill goes back to the Senate plenary, but this time only for voting. This is referred to as the THIRD READING. Voting can either be viva voce (meaning, Lawmakers merely say “Aye” or “Nay” and there is no physical counting of votes. Usually, though, each senator casts a vote which is recorded next to his name.
Step Six: The bill approved on Third Reading by the Senate is now ready to be reconciled with the similar bill approved by the House also on Third Reading. The Senate assigns who will meet with their House counterparts in a BICAMERAL CONFERENCE. Through the years, it has become the practice of both chambers to introduce substantial amendments that neither chamber even included in their approved versions. This is also where the horse-trading occurs between chambers.
In the case of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the equally controversial Section 6 was in the House version which the bicam conference committee adopted in the final version of the bill which is now a law. Here is Section 6:
SEC. 6. All crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by the relevant provisions of this Act: Provided, That the penalty to be imposed shall be one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, as the case may be.
Step Seven: The reconciled version goes back to both chambers and a final vote is held to approve or reject the law. At this point, no one in either chamber can object to any section or insert any more amendments. The only purpose is to cast the final vote.
Let’s examine what Sotto said in the light of these Seven Steps
The Cebu-based Freeman quoted Senator Sotto as claiming that it was the Senate committee that handled the bill which approved the online libel rider. Sotto told reporters that the only issue he raised was the issue of cybersquatting during the bill’s plenary discussions.
You can find this in Jojo Malig’s ABS-CBNNews piece entitled Internet Libel? It wasn’t me, Sotto says
Thanks, Jojo, for your quick reporter’s eyes.
Jojo wrote that:
A report by another regional newspaper, The Freeman, said Senator Sotto claimed that the Senate committee that handled the bill approved the online libel rider in the last quarter of 2011.
Sotto said Friday that he only raised the issue of cybersquatting in the bill’s plenary discussions.
Now let’s see what the Senate records actually state.
Yes. Senator Sotto was correct when he said he only raised the issue of cybersquatting during the plenary discussions on SECOND READING.
Page 281 of the Senate Journal of September 12, 2011 bears Senator Sotto out. Below is a screen-cap of an excerpt from that page of the Senate Journal.
However, the same Senate Journal shows that on January 24, 2012 – still during the SECOND READING – Senator Sotto introduced the online libel rider.
I understand that in Friday’s forum, Sotto did not stay around to be asked questions after his speech. If he had stayed around, he could have been asked the following question:
Senator Sotto, during the period of individual amendments on January 24, 2012 did you state the following things as recorded in the Senate Journal?
Let me tell you one important thing to remember about the Senate Journal. Every plenary session is recorded and transcribed word for word. Then a summary of what each senator stated and how the chamber acted is written in a Senate Journal. The journal always comes out the next day (except when it is a sine die session, which is when lawmakers ‘stop the clock’ to avoid adjourning.) Each senator has the power to correct any entry in the journal.
Senator Sotto, who is the Senate Rules Committee chair, did not correct this entry about him introducing the online libel rider last January 24. Therefore we can assume 100% that it is a correct reflection of what had happened.
The publication Sunstar also quoted Senator Sotto as stating in its piece Sotto on online libel law: Not mine but I’m all for it:
Sotto, who recently received criticism for allegedly plagiarizing other people’s works, denied reports he inserted the libel clause at the last minute. He said that the Senate version of Republic Act (RA) 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, was by Senator Edgardo Angara.
Except during plenary debates, Sotto said he had no participation in the crafting of the law. He added that the bill was passed at the committee level in the last quarter of 2012 [sic – this probably meant 2011], before accusations of plagiarism against him surfaced.
In the light of the seven steps of lawmaking, let’s examine what Sotto told the media in Cebu.
Sotto was correct when he said (1) he had no participation in crafting the law; (2) the Senate version was by Senator Angara ; and (3) the bill was passed at committee level long before he was accused of plagiarism.
However, again, he neglected to say that on January 24, 2012 he inserted the online libel rider.
In short, Sotto’s participation in the crafting of the Cybercrime Prevention Act consisted of
(1) interpellating on SECOND READING about cybersquatting on September 12, 2011 and
(2) inserting a midnight cut-and-paste section on online libel on January 24, 2012, which was still on SECOND READING.
Why did media fail to catch Senator Sotto’s libel rider on time?
I feel partly to blame for not catching this libel rider on time. My husband Alan had warned me about the impending bill but my attention was riveted on the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona.
I did try to look for any rider in the law after Senator Sotto had warned that cyberbullies had better watch out for the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
I tried to look for the latest version of the law. I read SB 2796 and it had nothing on online libel.
Now I realize on hindsight that the Senate website does not upload that version of the bill that is the product of the bicameral conference committee. This version would be the latest and final one, just before it is voted into law by Congress. It would contain all the lawmakers’ individual amendments plus the amendments inserted by the bicam committee.
I would like to suggest that from now on, both chambers of Congress disclose to the public the final bicam version of any bill before Congress’ approval, in the spirit of transparency and fair play.