It was inevitable. That the most controversial new legal concept of the day, electronic libel, would collide with arguably the most consequential economic debate of our time, the future of mining in the Philippines, makes the so-called “Cyber-Perling” case even more fraught with meaning. But it was really only a matter of time before the nature of the nightmare spawned by the Cybercrime Prevention Act became visible to the ordinary eye.

We wish to be clear: All the parties behind the case filed against antimining activist Esperlita “Perling” Garcia of Gonzaga, Cagayan, have described the suit as mere libel—including Gonzaga Mayor Carlito Pentecostes Jr., who filed the complaint, and the National Bureau of Investigation, which arrested Garcia a week ago today. For some reason, even President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda got into the act, clarifying the status of the case; perhaps because he was goaded by Anakbayan critics into explaining the administration’s policy on electronic libel, however, his statement could be read by some as implied support for an old-fashioned libel suit against Garcia.

Garcia, the president of the Gonzaga Alliance for Environmental Protection and Preservation, a leading source of opposition to small-scale magnetite sand mining in the province, herself described the case as part of a campaign of harassment directed at her.

But here’s the rub: Because the subject of the libel suit is a Facebook post she wrote in April last year, Garcia’s plight has attracted the attention not only of fellow environmental activists but also, and much more loudly, of critics of the new cybercrime law. The law, signed last month by President Aquino, extended the scope of the decades-old provisions on libel in the Revised Penal Code to online activity and raised the penalties by one degree; in a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court ruled to suspend the law for 120 days—a move widely seen as giving Congress the leeway it needed to remedy the law’s obvious deficiencies without the embarrassment of an adverse ruling.

Hence the birth of Cyber-Perling, both the name of the Facebook page put up by Garcia’s supporters and also the news shorthand for Garcia herself. Hence the cries of alarm in the opinion pages, about “warning shots” and “swords of Damocles.” Hence the very real fear in online forums that Garcia is being made an example, a test case to probe the limits of popular outrage.

Memories of the misfortune that afflicted 16 contractual nurses working for the Taguig-Pateros District Hospital are still fresh; after “liking” a volunteer-doctor’s Facebook post that criticized the hospital last August, they were summarily fired. Garcia’s case is the awful next step; she faces a criminal penalty, the possibility of imprisonment. (In fact, she already spent one day in jail, because she was able to post bail only the day after her arrest.)

The convoluted reasoning of a senator who voted for the cybercrime law shows us the extent to which mischief can turn black-letter law into a living nightmare. Sen. Panfilo Lacson predicted that the Garcia case would end up in the Supreme Court, because he said the prosecutors could not have used the cybercrime law retroactively. “When the Revised Penal Code was passed, unless there was an amendatory law that had amended certain provisions of the RPC . . . If none, the RPC has been there for some time and there was no Internet at that time.”

If a two-term senator does not know for a fact that the Code’s libel provisions were amended once to include broadcast but have not been amended again to include the Internet, what about us mere mortals? The ordinary citizen is at the mercy of any official who can speak legalese.

Certainly the Garcia case could be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, but the chances are also high that it may not make it all the way to the tribunal. The Regional Trial Court hearing it may throw it out because the complainant is a public official who has a heavy burden to prove malice, or because the judge does not see the Code’s libel provisions as extending to the Internet.

But the damage has been, is being, done. Garcia faces a year or two of legal uncertainty, mounting legal costs, distractions from her advocacy. Pentecostes said all he wanted to do was teach her a lesson, in responsibility, but in fact it is an object lesson in plain harassment. The powers that be can reach us anywhere, even on Facebook.

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Tags: Cybercrime law , editorial , electronic libel , esperlita Garcia , facebook , `cyber-perling’

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