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Editorial

A blow against free speech

The new Cybercrime Prevention Act, signed into law by President Aquino on Sept. 12, takes the dangerously outmoded provisions on libel in the Revised Penal Code—and dumps them online. Without any legislative debate, without any public hearing, indeed with hardly anyone looking, these libel provisions have been unthinkingly extended to all online content. While the extension itself is only a small part of the new law, it now threatens every citizen who has access to a computer device with unconscionable restrictions on our hard-earned right to free speech.

We believe the new provision is deeply, radically, unconstitutional.

Coupled with the continuing inaction of the Aquino administration and its coalition allies in Congress on the long-sought, much-promised Freedom of Information Act, the new law makes us question the depth of the administration’s commitment to free speech, a free press and the free exchange of information.

It is possible that the Aquino administration and its partners in Congress were merely asleep at the switch, and did not realize the true implications of the extension. The sequence of events, as first pieced together by blogger and South China Morning Post correspondent Raissa Robles, certainly suggests that the introduction of the inserted passage, by Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, was hurried and did not benefit from in-depth discussion. The law’s major sponsor, Sen. Edgardo Angara, merely acquiesced to Sotto’s proposal to extend the reach of the existing libel provisions to cyberspace.

Whatever the case, the burden of responsibility—and it is a heavy one, with historical consequences—remains with the legislators who voted for the new law, and with the President who enacted it.

The language of the extension seems innocuous enough. We find it under Chapter II, “Punishable Acts,” together with other “Content-related Offenses,” namely cybersex, child pornography and unsolicited commercial communications or spam.

Under Section 4, subsection C, paragraph 4, we read: “Libel.—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.”

And that’s it. There’s nothing else, no distinctions made, no qualifications offered. When we said “unthinking,” we meant our legislators did not think the matter through.

The Revised Penal Code was enacted into law some 80 years ago. While the provisions on libel have since been amended, to include the broadcast media, the assumptions behind them remain very much bound both to the print format and to the Code’s restrictive theories.

But the reality of online interaction, the networking that is made possible in cyberspace, is very different. There is certainly a need for greater responsibility in online conduct, to tame cyber-bullying, for instance, or to keep flaming wars from raging out of control. Dumping the Code’s provisions online and then hoping it will all work out, however, is not the way to meet this need.

Consider the following:

When a newspaper reader e-mails a possibly libelous article to a friend, is that reader now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When an online viewer tweets a link of a possibly libelous video to a friend, is that first viewer now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When a friend “likes” or shares or comments on a possibly libelous post on Facebook, is that friend now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When the subject of a possibly libelous article written by a city-based reporter reads it in online form in a remote area, can the subject file a case against the reporter in that place? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer, again, is yes.

We note that, in the penalties section, no sanctions are imposed on cyber-libel. Did our legislators think that was enough of a safeguard? But the journalism profession’s sorry experience with libel law in the Philippines has never been about conviction; it has always been about prosecution.

In other words, and even though libel suits are difficult to win because the presence of malice, a requirement of the law, is hard to prove, libel cases are filed against journalists anyway—because these cases are a form of harassment. They tie up a reporter’s time, they run up an editor’s legal fees, they discombobulate a newsroom.

And now, courtesy of our legislators, the same form of harassment is available to torment those who produce online content. That means, literally, tens of millions of Filipinos, made vulnerable in one fell swoop.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Philippine libel law, which penalizes those convicted with imprisonment, violates human rights protocols. All of a sudden, it now runs afoul of Internet protocols, too.


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