High court zeroes in on online libel

MANILA (Updated) -- Justices of the Supreme Court (SC) began entertaining arguments against the constitutionality of Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 on Tuesday, as a lawyer called on Congress to finally decriminalize libel.

In discussing the demerits of online libel and cybersex, University of the Philippines professor Harry Roque said these provisions should be struck down for infringing on freedom of expression. He said the provisions are not clear and prone to abuse.

He also pitched to the justices the call of the United Nations Human Rights Committee to lessen the gravity of penalty for those who will be found guilty of libel. Instead, the offender should be accountable for civil damages, he said.

“We are not questioning the government’s police power but we have to balance the interest of the public. The statutes that are deemed dangerous to constitutional rights must be declared unconstitutional,” Roque said.

For his part, Senator Teofisto Guingona III deplored the lack of slow action of Congress on bills seeking to decriminalize libel and introduce amendments to the law.

“I am hopeful that the stake of reason we offer will be a death blow to provisions that restrict, limit, and even destroy fundamental constitutional rights,” he said in his opening statement.

Protesters, especially from the youth, camped outside the SC since Monday night to express their call for the High Court to nullify the law, which is set to take effect on February 6 once the four-month TRO issued by the Court expires.

With its provision on online libel, the law may be used by the Aquino administration to silence or scare critics during the campaign period for the May midterm elections, according to militant group Anakbayan.

“At a time when political criticism and engagement is needed, the government can effectively eliminate a large part of our democratic space. Elections are supposed to be a time for democratic participation; this e-Martial Law does the opposite,” said Anakbayan national chairperson Vencer Crisostomo.

Candidates for senator and party-list can start their campaign on February 12.

After Roque, four lawyers defended the unconstitutionality of provisions such as real-time collection of traffic data and empowering the Department of Justice to restrict or block access to computer data found to be in prima facie violation of provisions of Republic Act 10175.

Meantime, Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta said there is something wrong with Section 7, which provides separate conviction for online libel under the Revised Penal Code.

"In this case, there is no additional element to distinguish crime under this law (RA 10175) and what is included in the RPC. What is mentioned in Section 7 is not an element of the crime. What section 6 penalizes is the same as that in the RPC," she said.

Peralta said the law was ambiguous why it increased the penalty of online libel by one degree or six years and one day to 12 year imprisonment from six months and one day to six years.

“By increasing the penalty by one degree, you are already providing for a different kind of libel but no new element was introduced. Section 7 is clearly infirm," he said.

The Office of the Solicitor General, representing Congress and Malacañang, will argue its case next Tuesday.

Congress, however, has an option to send a lawyer who will defend Section 19, which the OSG said is unconstitutional for lack of judicial warrant in accessing computer data. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)
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