By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Forty years after the imposition of martial law, the Philippine media is still confronted with problems bearing imprints of the dictatorship.
The enactment of the Republic Act 10175 or the Anti-Cybercrime Law is just one of the steps being taken against the press. Luis Teodoro, deputy executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said that while the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill has been waiting for 19 years to be passed, the Anti-Cybercrime Act and the Data Privacy Act or Republic Act 10173 were railroaded.
The Anti-Cybercrime Act puts restrictions on internet communication. The Data Privacy Act provides penalties against those in government who release information of a personal nature.
“The officialdom has a mindset that is not pro-democracy,” Teodoro said in an interview with Bulatlat.com. He said “the recent restrictions are aimed at narrowing down the democratic space.”
Teodoro, who has been a journalist since martial law years, said there remains “the constant danger of restoration of authoritarian rule.”
Teodoro, also former dean of the College of Mass Communications of the University of the Philippines, said the Anti-Cybercrime Act is dangerous, particularly the provisions on online libel.
“It is a backward step,” Teodoro said. He explained that while media groups have been campaigning to decriminalize libel and the United Nations Human Rights Committee pointed out that the 82-year-old libel law in the Philippines is excessive, the Anti-CyberCrime Act “not only validated but strengthened the libel law.”
Teodoro was referring to the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision on the case of Davao City radio journalist Alexander Adonis, who was convicted in 2007 of libel and spent two years in prison. The UN committee said the Philippine government violated article 19 on the right to freedom of expression and opinion of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee also called on the Philippine government to decriminalize libel.
In a statement, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the law’s criminal penalties for online libel and other restrictions are a serious threat to free expression.
“The cybercrime law needs to be repealed or replaced,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “It violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.”
A section on libel specifies that criminal libel, already detailed in Article 355 of the Philippines Revised Penal Code, will now apply to acts “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” The new law drastically increases the penalty for computer-related libel, with the minimum punishment raised twelve-fold, from six months to six years. The maximum punishment is doubled from six to twelve years in prison.
“Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader – including government officials – bring a libel charge,” Adams said. “Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.”
In democratic countries, libel is a civil and not a criminal case.
Teodoro said that in a recent conference he attended in Bangkok, he was happy to say that the country has no law restricting the internet. “Now, they started to notice the internet.”
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of human rights Karapatan, tagged the Anti-Cybercrime Act as electronic martial law. “There is no better way to describe it,” she said in a forum, Sept. 27.
Human Rights Watch noted that the new law has a provision that grants new powers to the Department of Justice, which, on its own and without a warrant, can order the shutdown of any website it finds violating the law. It also authorizes police to collect computer data in real time without a court order or warrant.
On the other hand, the Data Privacy Act, Teodoro said, has an impact on the media. If a journalist writes about the private life of a politician even if the details have something to do with the performance of his or her duties, the journalist could be penalized. Teorodo feared that the law might be used against journalists covering the upcoming elections.
The CMFR sent a letter expressing its position on the Data Privacy Act to the Presidential Communications Office. There was no response.
Teodoro said the passage of these laws “may open the floodgates to other forms of restrictions to press freedom and other civil liberties.”
Teodoro also attributed the killings of journalists to the legacy of violence during martial law.
“The situation even got worse,” Teodoro said. “If they [powerful] did not like what you wrote, you would just be killed.”
According to CMFR, 127 journalists have been killed since the so-called restoration of democracy in 1986.
Under Aquino, 13 journalists have been murdered.