Online libel-A A +A
Monday, September 17, 2012
JUST as media people push for the decriminalization of libel, the government passes an online libel law that expands coverage to material on the Internet.
President Benigno Aquino III signed into law last Wednesday Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 to combat crimes committed through the use of information and communications technology (ICT). The law makes punishable the following:
Illegal access; illegal interception; data interference; system interference; misuse of devices; computer-related fraud; computer-related identity theft; cybersex; child pornography; unsolicited commercial communications or spamming; and libel.
The last measure on this field was the Electric Commerce or E-Commerce Act passed in 2000. Many developments on ICT and Internet communications have happened since then that there was need to take another look at the law.
But the inclusion of online libel in the new law is discomfiting because of its suddenness and the fact that media organizations even want libel decriminalized. Media groups want libel to be punishable with a fine, not by a prison sentence, because the law has been used to silence critical journalists.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 defines Libel as the “unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”
Kabataan Party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino described the libel provision as the “killer insertion” that is prone to abuse and could be used to “censor online content or to harass critics of the government.”
If the purpose was to regulate online content that can be irresponsible and hateful at times, what was needed was not a law on online libel but education of the people on the ethical use of the Internet.
Libel on the Internet can be difficult to prosecute because web pages can be uploaded and swiftly removed and there will always be the question of jurisdiction. Offensive materials may be taken down instantly. Was the crime committed in the place where the material was uploaded or where it was viewed? Is the place of publication where the server hosting the website is located? Many websites are hosted outside of the country. What court will have jurisdiction then?
Then, there is the matter of the penalty as the new law states that the use of online means is an aggravating circumstance that raises the penalty by one degree higher than what is provided in the Revised Penal Code. Libel would not be decriminalized and could be a bigger crime if done online.
These are among the questions that point to how online libel is vague and, thus, open to abuse.
The new law goes against the intent of the proposed Freedom of Information Act where the citizen’s right to access government data is assured and public offices are required to be transparent. It limits people’s freedom to seek information and to speak about it.
The inclusion of libel in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 may hog discussion on the new law to the detriment of its other, more important measures against cybersex, child pornography or spamming.
Online libel should not have been included in this new law.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 18, 2012.