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Open season against netizens

Even then I knew it was a firestorm in the making.

In 2012, under the Benigno Aquino III administration, the anti-cybercrime bill (or what is now known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 or Republic Act 10175) was enacted into law.

Crimes mentioned within its provisions include cyber libel, which is defined in RA 10175 as “the unlawful, 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.”

In response to the enactment of what was clearly an unconstitutional law, I wrote my essay “The Orwellian Manifesto,” which raised a warning to all netizens on how this particular provision—cyber libel—could be used to harass and intimidate not only journalists and writers, but all who post their opinions on social media across all sociopolitical camps.

The Revised Penal Code breaks the whole enchilada further down to its specific ingredients—from the chicken broth to the chili powder.

In Article 353, under the heading of “Crimes against Honor: Libel,” defines libel as “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

Article 355 also says: “Libel means by writings or similar means. —A libel committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means, shall be punished by prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party.”

Under the Revised Penal Code, printed libel carries a penalty of six (6) months and one (1) day to four (4) years and two (2) months.

However, by Department of Justice interpretation, cyber libel carries an increased prison term of six (6) years and one (1) day to up to 12 years.

This was also the interpretation of Atty. Harry Roque who spoke in his capacity as director of the Institute of International Legal Studies of the University of the Philippines Law Center back in 2012. ABS-CBN captured that interview.

https://news.abs-cbn.com/-depth/09/19/12/internet-libel-may-lead-12-years-prison

On February 2014, the Supreme Court, after a slew of oral arguments, upheld the constitutionality of some of RA 10175’s provisions.

According to a Rappler report posted Feb. 21, 2014:

“The SC ruled that the controversial provision on online libel is constitutional, but is subject to one condition: only the original author, not those who receive or react to the post, can be penalized.

“Meanwhile, 3 provisions were voted down as categorically unconstitutional:

“Section 4 (c)(3) which pertains to unsolicited commercial communications

“Section 12 which pertains to real-time collection of traffic data

“Section 19 which pertains to restricting or blocking access to computer data

“The SC decided that granting power to the Department of Justice to restrict computer data on the basis of prima facie or initially observed evidence was not in keeping with the Constitution. The said automatic take-down clause is found in Section 19 of the cybercrime prevention law.”

https://www.rappler.com/nation/special-coverage/cybercrime-law/51197-full-text-supreme-court-decision-cybercrime-law

Narrowing all this down into understandable English is where we find the moment of panic: Anyone posting their opinions, news or what-have-you on social media and the internet can be charged with cyber libel by anyone who thinks the post is inappropriate or he or she is being alluded to with presumed malice.

This includes not only journalists and writers, but every single netizen regardless of creed, ideology, level of vocabulary or political leaning.

With the exception, perhaps, of the President no matter what lusus naturae comes out of his mouth.

It matters little, too, if you posted your opinion or news yesterday or twelve years ago: The charge stays.

Observe how the cyber libel charge of businessman Wilfredo Keng has sent ripples of smoldering hot lava all across newsrooms in the country. Just recently, Philstar.com, which I was told functions quite independently from its broadsheet–The Philippine STAR–has decided to take down a story it published on Wilfredo Keng.

The news website published this statement.

“Since going live in 2000, our news website has republished The STAR’s articles, many of which we keep in digital archives, alongside Philstar.com‘s own online-only journalism.

“In light of recent events, we removed the Aug. 12, 2002 The STAR article titled “Influential businessman eyed in ex-councilor’s slay” from our platform. This was after the camp of Mr. Wilfredo Keng raised the possibility of legal action.

“Although laws are not supposed to be applied retroactively, the scope and bounds of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 are still unexplored and the takedown was seen as a prudent course of action. At this time, it is not clear if any live digital element on the article page outside the 17-year-old article could be used against us.

“Despite the current atmosphere surrounding freedom of the press and of expression in the region and the world, we remain confident that, in the end, truth shall prevail.”

I wouldn’t be too quick to charge Philstar’s editors and publishers of cowardice. Prudence, perhaps, may be a better word. To live to fight another day is an appropriate strategy, what with a world growing every inch hostile to journalists. More than ever, we need people working the field and the newsroom, not in jail.

No, the cyber libel controversy does not begin and end with Maria Ressa and Rappler. Everyone–from all across the sociopolitical spectrum–is fair game.

Shorn of every sliver of decency, people who should know better have, alas, weaponized our laws to work against the very citizens they swore to protect.

Make no mistake: Each and every netizen is now a potential target.

It pays to commit to memory this provision in Article III Section 4 of the Bill of Rights: “‘No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.’” G

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