Venue of crime vital to case: SC-A A +A
Thursday, October 11, 2012
BEFORE the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, the Supreme Court (SC) had tackled the difficulty of prosecuting online libel.
In the Bonifacio et. al. versus Makati City Regional Trial Court Branch 149 case, the SC decision—penned by then Associate Justice now Tanodbayan Conchita Carpio-Morales—pointed out that a complaint or information should contain allegations about time the offense was committed, the offended party, and place of commission of the crime.
Citing previous libel cases, the SC noted that the offended party harassed respondents by filing the case in a remote or distant place.
To prevent this, the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines lays down specific rules on the venue of the criminal action to prevent the offended party in written defamation cases from harassing the accused by filing “out-of-town libel suits.”
“Venue is jurisdictional in criminal actions such that the place where the crime was committed determines not only the venue of the action but constitutes an essential element of jurisdiction,” the SC decision penned by Morales read.
The High Court said this element “cannot be reasonably expected” in the alleged libelous materials posted on a website or the Internet since their printing and first publication could not be determined.
“It hardly requires much imagination to see the chaos that would ensue in situations where the website’s author or writer, a blogger or anyone who posts messages therein could be sued for libel anywhere in the Philippines (where) the private complainant may have allegedly accessed the offending website,” the SC ruled.
The High Court’s decision stemmed from the libel charges filed against officers of Parents Enabling Parents Coalition Inc. (Pepci) before the Makati City Prosecutor’s Office.
Pepci is made up of disgruntled plan holders of Pacific Plans Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Great Pacific Life Assurance Corporation owned by the Yuchengco Group of Companies (YGC).
The respondents bought pre-need educational plans from Pacific Plans but were unable to avail of the benefits promised due to the company’s liquidity issues.
The plan holders decided to create a blog (www.pepcoalition.com) where they ventilated their grievances against Pacific Plans.
Pacific Plans filed libel charges against the group in 2005 for posting articles allegedly containing “highly derogatory statements and false accusations, relentlessly attacking the Yuchengco Family and YGC.”
In its resolution dated May 5, 2006, the Office of the Makati City Prosecutor found probable cause to hold the respondents on trial for 13 counts of libel.
The respondents then filed a petition for review with the Department of Justice, which reversed the prosecutor’s resolution. The justice department directed the prosecutors to withdraw the information for libel that was elevated in the trial court.
The justice department pointed out that Internet libel was non-existent, therefore the respondents could not be charged with online libel.
The respondents then filed a motion to quash the information due to failure of the court to acquire jurisdiction over the case.
The lower court quashed the information but it later reversed its order upon the complainant’s motion for reconsideration. The trial court also ordered the prosecutors to “amend the information to cure the defect of want of venue.”
The SC ruled that the lower court committed grave abuse of discretion in denying petitioners’ motion to quash the amended information.
Anti-cybercrime law advocates rejoiced when the SC last Tuesday stopped for 120 days the implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
The SC justices are also deliberating on whether or not some provisions of the cybercrime law, including the criminal penalty of up to 12 years in prison for libel over the Internet, violate civil rights.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on October 11, 2012.