When does cyberlibel prescribe?
The overriding issue in the Rappler case is the prescriptive period of cyberlibel. There are two competing legal theories on the prescriptive period of cyberlibel.
The first theory, or the 12-year theory, was applied by the judge in convicting the accused in the Rappler case. The premise of this theory is that cyberlibel is a crime defined and penalized in a special law — Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 which does not provide for its own prescriptive periods. In such a case, Act No. 3326, which provides for prescriptive periods for special laws that do not prescribe their own prescriptive periods, applies. Under Act No. 3326, the prescriptive period is 12 years for crimes punishable with imprisonment of six years or more.
The penalty for cyberlibel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act is “one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code” (RPC). The penalty for print or broadcast libel under the RPC is prision correccional, with a maximum imprisonment of six years, and one degree higher is prision mayor, with a maximum imprisonment of 12 years. This makes the prescriptive period for cyberlibel 12 years if Act No. 3326 is applicable.
The second theory, or the one-year theory, was articulated by Dean Mel Sta. Maria of the FEU Law Institute. The premise of this theory is that cyberlibel is a crime defined and penalized in the RPC, and the commission of the crime with the use of the internet is merely a qualifying circumstance to increase the penalty one degree higher. In such a case, the prescriptive period for cyberlibel is governed by the RPC which prescribes its own prescriptive periods. Under Article 90 of the RPC, “the crime of libel and other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year.”
I subscribe to the one-year theory for three reasons. First, in the 2014 case of Disini v. Secretary of Justice involving the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the Supreme Court en banc ruled that “cyberlibel is actually not a new crime since Article 353 of the penal code, in relation to Article 355, already punishes it.” Under Article 355, libel is committed by means of “writing, printing xxx or any other similar means.” The Court ruled that “online defamation constitutes ‘similar means’ of committing libel.” Thus, the prescriptive period of one year in the RPC applies to cyberlibel since it is an offense defined and penalized in the Code.
Second, Act No. 3326 cannot be applied to crimes defined and penalized in the RPC. Act No. 3326 applies only to special laws, and its Section 3 expressly provides that “special acts shall be acts defining and penalizing violations of the law not included in the Penal Code.” Clearly, by an express provision in Act No. 3326 itself, the Act shall apply only to crimes “not included in the Penal Code.” Thus, Act No. 3326 is not applicable to cyberlibel, which the Supreme Court en banc, in Disini v. Secretary of Justice, ruled is defined and penalized in the RPC.
Third, the prescriptive periods in Article 90 of the RPC are classified into two: those based on the length or nature of the penalty, and those based on the crime itself regardless of the length or nature of the penalty. Under the first classification are, among others, crimes punishable by correctional penalty which prescribe in 10 years. Under the second classification are, among others, “libel and similar offenses” which prescribe in one year.
The length of the penalty of libel is six months and one day to six years which is a correctional penalty with a prescriptive period of 10 years. However, Article 90 has expressly prescribed a prescriptive period of only one year for libel, down from two years prior to the 1966 amendment effected by RA No. 4661. Contrary to the minute resolution of the Supreme Court’s First Division in Tolentino v. People of the Philippines, whatever is the length of the penalty of libel or cyberlibel, the prescriptive period will always remain at one year because this is what Article 90 expressly provides—“the crime of libel or other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year.”
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