A bill filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros may yet address the one “skill” that the previous administration seems to have mastered: the art of stifling dissent, mainly by weaponizing the country’s laws and the courts.
Senate Bill No. 1593, known as the Decriminalization of Libel Act, repeals several articles of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) referring to libel, as well as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
The proposed law addresses the government’s latest approach to shutting down the bearers of bad tidings. Previous tactics include the arrest and detention of critics on what may be trumped-up charges (as in the case of former senator Leila de Lima); the Red-tagging of activists, lawyers, and judges who air contrary views to that of the administration by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, and the anti-terrorism law that tags opposition voices as communist terrorists who may be detained for weeks even without charges, surveilled, and their assets frozen.
The cyberlibel charge filed against Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, the CEO of an online news site, sets an even more disturbing tone to how government views the role of media. It shows, Hontiveros pointed out, how libel laws are used against journalists “who are just doing their job.”
Added the senator: “Our libel laws have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights. These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom.”
Such a charge, said ACT Teachers party list Rep. France Castro who filed a similar bill earlier, “caused the gagging of media practitioners, the concealment of the truth from public knowledge, prior restraint and chilling effect, and [making] people [incapable of] gaining a meaningful understanding of various public issues that are of paramount concern.”
Aside from denying ordinary citizens access to important information by shooting the messenger, so to speak, Hontiveros pointed out that cyberlibel cases “clog court dockets … and contribute to the overburdening of both the executive and judicial branches, and the draining of their respective resources.”
While the RPC also addresses libel, the Cybercrime Law of 2012 provides for stiffer penalties. From one to six years in prison and a fine of up to P6,000 under the RPC, the jail term has been increased to as long as 12 years, and the fine up to the maximum amount stated by the court.
Baguio-based journalist Frank Cimatu, who was recently convicted of cyberlibel in a case filed by former agriculture secretary Manny Piñol, faces up to five years, five months, and 11 days in prison, and was ordered to pay Piñol P300,000 in moral damages. The penalties are enough to discourage journalists, who are notoriously poorly paid, from pursuing potentially critical stories that involve government officials.
But why provide more teeth to a law whose 1930s definition, according to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, is outdated and no longer applies in this age of the internet?
Neither does the law adhere to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Philippines signed in 1966 and ratified in 1986, noted lawyer Gilbert Andres of the nongovernment organization Media Defense Southeast Asia.
And yet, filing cyberlibel charges seems the default recourse among officials who can’t seem to understand that, being public servants, they are subject to public scrutiny. According to the July 2022 data of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, 56 journalists were sued for libel, 10 of them for cyberlibel.
Just how flimsy these cases are is indicated by data obtained from the Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime, which show that authorities have junked about a third or 1,131 cases of the total 3,770 cases filed as of May 2022.
Admittedly, no freedom is absolute and media practitioners are accountable as well for whatever information they release to the public, as they are expected to adhere to journalism’s core values of fairness and objectivity through a strict system of fact-checking. Already, there are protests about “fake journalists” of dubious affiliations and vloggers who use social media channels to extort their sources under threat of being “exposed.” Who’s to know who’s legit, and who’s fake anyway?
Media organizations would do well to police their ranks, too. So should politicians learn to handle criticisms through open discussions and by being transparent in their dealings, instead of going to court for every imagined slight.
As Hontiveros noted, “If we allow our laws to punish rather than protect the press, we chip away at our constitutional rights. This will cost us our democracy.”
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