Updated February 21, 2014
“The criminal nature of libel in this country makes it the perfect tool of harassment (short of murder, which has also taken out so many Filipino journalists).”
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Human rights groups and netizens could not be appeased by the Supreme Court’s striking down of several provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
In its decision, the high court declared Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 constitutional except for a few provisions. Section 4 of the law, which penalizes online libel, is deemed constitutional by the high court.
President Benigno Aquino III defended the online libel, saying this would not be used to stifle dissent. “Will freedom of expression be stopped? I don’t think that is the purpose of the law,” Aquino was quoted as saying in a report.
For human rights groups and internet freedom advocates, however, online libel and other provisions of the Cybercrime Act can be used to harass government critics, journalists and netizens.
Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general said, “The libel provision in the cybercrime law will most likely be used against those who criticize BS [Benigno Simeon] Aquino’s anti-people policies and programs and those who expose corruption and rights violations.”
Karapatan filed on October 8, 2012 a complaint before the United Nations, through Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The complaint states that the Cybercrime Law constitutes several violations of international human rights conventions and declarations, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. The Philippines is a signatory to both conventions.
Veteran journalist Inday Espina Varona said in a statement that the Supreme Court decision on the Cybercrime Law “only makes citizen watchdogs vulnerable to people in power with the resources to harass voices of dissent.”
Varona, former chairwoman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said, “The criminal nature of libel in this country makes it the perfect tool of harassment (short of murder, which has also taken out so many Filipino journalists).”
Varona said truth is not a defense in libel and many award-winning, highly-praised articles and series have been the bases for libel charges.
“Complainants may file their cases anywhere an offending article can be seen. They’ve done this to journalists. In the digital age, your blog and social media post can be read everywhere and woe to the poor citizen caught in the maws of a vindictive official,” Varona said.
“… under the current climate of governance, those with the most reasons to silence opposing views and those with most to hide, will be crowing and giving each other high-fives,” Varona said.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) underscored that the Cybercrime Prevention Act imposes higher penalties for libel from a minimum of six months imprisonment in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) per count to a minimum of six years.
“The libel provisions of the RPC have been problematic for free expression and press freedom since 1932, when the RPC was implemented, primarily because of the penalty of imprisonment, which has been used in many instances to silence journalists,” the CMFR said.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), one of the petitioners against the law, said the “ruling stands to benefit only the powerful few.”
“Under a regime that has the tendency to blame the media’s alleged ‘negativity’ for most of the country’s woes, the SC ruling cannot but be bad news,” Bayan said.
Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), said “any blanket threat of criminal prosecution for online libel tilts the balance for untrammeled state intervention and will practically result in effective censorship, if not timidity or inordinate trepidation.”
“Freedom of speech and expression is such a valuable democratic right to be curtailed and penalized,” Olalia said. “It is precisely this freedom that eventually screens, isolates, exposes, and debunks abuses of such freedom and protects or ensures other liberties.”
Bayan called on all internet users to remain vigilant and to continue to oppose the ‘repressive’ Cybercrime Law. “Instead of being intimidated, we should aggressively exercise free speech over the internet,” the group said.