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There’s the Rub

Not very virtual crime

/ 09:13 PM October 01, 2012

I’m glad several senators have bestirred themselves to try to undo the harm they did for voting for the Cybercrime Prevention bill. That piece of legislation earned the ire of netizens and media practitioners alike, as seen in editorials and widespread sentiment in social media condemning it. Teofisto Guingona III has asked the Supreme Court to nullify the libel penalty provisions of the law. And Chiz Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano pledged to sponsor bills to amend the same thing.

The law itself, insofar as it tries to prevent identity theft, fraud and sexual predation, is good. Where it goes wrong, very very wrong, is where it criminalizes libel and identifies some of the most absurd situations for committing it in cyberspace. You half-suspect its sponsors, chief of them Edgardo Angara, put in all the sugar just so they could slip in the poison without anybody noticing. Well, the netizens, if not the senators, did.

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I agree with those who lament the fact that P-Noy signed the bill into law. Particularly on the eve of the 40th anniversary of martial law when his administration was reminding the public of the horrors of martial law and bidding them never to allow it to happen again. One of those horrors was the curtailment of the freedom of speech, which the libel part of this law does.

Government’s defense of it is wrongheaded. Its argument that the abuses its detractors warn about are farfetched and will not happen under P-Noy’s watch is lame. At the very least that’s so because P-Noy’s administration itself, despite its anticorruption crusade, or probably because of it, does not lack for officials who are petty tyrants. Who believe, like Oscar Wilde, that the best way to deal with temptation—in this case, jailing “abusive” detractors—is to yield to it.

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At the very most, a law does not just apply to a particular government, it applies to all governments. Can you imagine what Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose husband filed libel charges against a whole bunch of journalists, could have done with this? Indeed, can you imagine what a future government headed by someone who cannot abide disagreement, who believes his word is law, and who will most assuredly run for president in 2016, who is not pandak, maitim and maligno can do with it?

Quite simply, the cybercrime law is a cure that’s worse than the disease.

Does the disease exist?

Yes. And it’s virulent, afflicting mainstream and social media alike. With mainstream media, that’s so particularly with the more popular media, like radio and TV. Many of the news and comments there are little more than rumor, insinuation and innuendo based on “anonymous sources.” That was what nearly got Rico Puno lynched. It’s worse outside of Metro Manila, where commentators in local radio get to accuse people of all sorts of things with astonishing blitheness. The behavior of many local commentators there is not unlike the behavior of motorcycle riders on the streets of Metro Manila—for some reason, they figure they’re exempt from the rules of fair play.

I know that because at the height of the alarming murders of journalists during Arroyo’s time, each time I spoke out of town I’d get the comment from someone in my audience that some of the victims deserved to be shot, they were well known to be corrupt and abusive. I’d always answer that if we were justified in murdering the corrupt and abusive, then let’s start with public officials and not with journalists. But all this also made me wonder if the cynicism about media’s ability to spot, and spout, the truth, is not frighteningly extensive.

If that’s true of mainstream media, that’s even truer of social media, which is a relatively new phenomenon, whose rules have yet to be formulated, and which is accessible to just about anyone. I’ve heard honest-to-goodness journalists lament that unfortunately journalism, unlike medicine, law and engineering, is not a licensed profession. That lament multiplies a hundredfold with social media. It makes the tindahan sa kanto or beauty parlor look like the small-town crier in spreading gossip. It’s not just looseness of language that’s the problem there—which you see in the incontinent outbursts in the reactions section—it’s the looseness of facts. Or indeed the lack of any need to produce a shred of evidence to call people corrupt, mercenary, thieving.  Basta  lang,  ganun  yon.

The problem is real, and it is nasty. But is the anti-cybercrime law the solution to it?

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No.

Like mainstream media, the social media for all its faults is a powerful democratizing force. How powerful, you see in the “Arab Spring,” or the prodemocracy uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere last year, which were fueled in great part by frenzied interaction on the Internet. The best way for us to deal with the social media, like the mainstream one, is to err on the side of tolerance rather than restrictiveness. I’ll have more to say about this in days to come, but suffice it to say here that criminalizing, or indeed expanding the range of libel there, does not ensure progress, it ensures retrogression. It does not ensure freedom, it ensures the lack of it.

It’s worse than legislating a “right of reply” that allots equal air time or column space to public officials to answer any perceived slight or wrongful accusation. Which obliterates the media’s editorial freedom to determine what appears on their pages or during air time. Jailing people who spread libelous statements in the social media partakes of the Marcos law that banned “rumor-mongering” on pain of imprisonment or worse. As we’re bound to find out if we do not scrap it, under tyrannical conditions rumors tend to be true. The netizens are right to be angry.

This is one real crime against virtual space.

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TAGS: Conrado de Quiros, Cybercrime Prevention Act, freedom of speech, mainstream media, netizens, online libel, social media
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