Santiago: Online libel provision ‘impractical’

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Thursday, February 20, 2014


MANILA (Updated) -- Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago questioned on Thursday the practicality of the online libel provision in the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court (SC).

"It will add to the burgeoning prison population. We're spending taxpayers' money to sustain these prisoners and you add more people to that because of this. So, there's this question of impracticality. Is this practical?"

Santiago said police authorities will have "extreme difficulty in law enforcement" considering the nature of the Internet. "It does not operate within the same universe as radio, TV, and print," she said.

"The Supreme Court is treating social media as if it were just a scion, a successor, or just another classification of traditional media. It is not. So here, we have a case that unfortunately appears to be jurisprudence trailing after technology because of lack of information about how the Internet operates in society," Santiago added.

Aside from practicality, Santiago said online libel runs counter to the constitutional right of free speech and expression.

"Any law against freedom of speech should be presumed unconstitutional. Otherwise, there's no meaning to that constitutional provision," she pointed out.

Majority Floor Leader Alan Peter Cayetano echoed the sentiment of Santiago, saying that the online libel provision suppresses the freedom of speech of Internet users.

"Kung magiging final yan, trabaho ng Kongreso kaagad na i-repeal o i-modify iyan nang hindi naman ganoon ang epekto," Cayetano said as he pushed for the speedy approval of Congress on his proposal to repeal the online libel provision of the anti-cybercrime law.

Under the SC ruling, only the author of the libelous post can be held liable and "not those who simply receive or react to it."

In a statement, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said the SC decision does not only uphold the legality of online libel but also declares the original libel law in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) constitutional.

"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 group said.

Several senators have already filed bills to repeal Article 355 of the RPC and in effect decriminalize libel. The proposals are pending before a Senate committee.

The proposed measure of Senator Teofisto Guingona III, for one, decriminalizes libel "by means of writing or similar means as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code."

"This bill proposes to remove imprisonment as a penalty for libel because the threat of jail time sends a sufficient chilling effect on the freedom of expression," he said.

Senator Francis Escudero, for his part, said he is pushing anew for the passage of proposals to decriminalize libel, including online libel.

"The Philippines, as a country deemed democratic and developing, cannot rest on its antiquated law that runs detrimental and contrary to the exercise of freedom," Escudero said.

He added: "If we take away the threat of fear of incarceration and restraint of liberty, we encourage a strong print media to continuously provide a mechanism that promotes transparency over the excesses of government and other entities."

Escudero said the existence of libel in Philippine laws is hurting the country's global press freedom ranking, which has dropped in recent years from 147 out of 179 countries in 2013 and 140 in 2012 based on the World Press Freedom Index to 149.

"I respect the decision of the High Court but there still lies a pressing need to pass the amendments removing the criminal provision of libel as a crime," Escudero said, as he also insisted on the need to retain the civil liabilities to ensure that the exercise of freedom of expression comes with equal responsibilities.

A party-list lawmaker also expressed serious concerns on the recent Supreme Court ruling declaring online libel as constitutional.

"We are distressed that the [High] Court failed to similarly invalidate some of the provisions identified as detrimental to public interest," said Akbayan party-list Representative Barry Gutierrez.

Despite recent judicial setback, Gutierrez expressed his commitment to pursue the repeal of online libel from the Cybercrime Law.

"We will continue to press ahead for the amendments of the Cybercrime Law, especially now that the SC ruling has fallen short of expectations. We already filed our proposed amendments, which are all incorporated in House Bill 3859," Gutierrez said referring to the bill, which seeks to repeal the online libel clause in the Cybercrime law and a strong regulation of the State's power to collect, seize, disclose or restrict access to data available to the Internet. (With Camille P. Balagtas/John Carlo Cahinhinan/Sunnex)

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