A larger universe
There will be time for a rigorous reckoning, an accounting of the decisions and compromises and lapses in judgment that went into the making of the Cybercrime Prevention Act. But for now we welcome the various attempts of several senators and congressmen to however belatedly propose remedies to the controversial new law. Much remains to be done, and fast.
The law’s basic flaw is the unthinking extension of our dangerously outmoded provisions on libel to the online space. As the law’s principal author, Sen. Edgardo Angara, belatedly explained: “We are just importing the law of libel for print and broadcast into the Internet. Otherwise there would be a zone of impunity.” But in fact the zone of impunity turned out to be the Senate. The on-again, off-again debate on libel in the Philippines had revolved around the central idea that libel should be decriminalized; as the record of the proceedings in the Senate already shows, nothing about this years-long debate was reflected in the discussion. In fact, there wasn’t any discussion at all, when Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III proposed the wholesale application of the existing law on libel to cyberspace (a fact that was acknowledged either implicitly or explicitly by at least three senators who had voted for the law). To add insult to injury, the penalties for online libel were increased by a degree. Talk about impunity.
The danger posed by the controversial provision is compounded by the unconscionable grant of sweeping powers to the Department of Justice in Section 19, the so-called takedown clause. This would allow the executive branch to shut down websites or access databases even without a court order. As with the extension of the libel law to cyberspace, this provision represents an unfortunate regression, and is out of step with global trends.
Responding to the loud and growing outcry against the law, Angara admitted the other day that Republic Act 10175 was indeed flawed, and said he was going to file amendments to dull the edge of the unexpectedly sharp new measure he had done the most to bring to President Aquino’s desk. He mentioned the increase in penalty and especially the takedown clause; in a surreal turn of events, the law’s main champion asked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to “suspend the application” of the clause until it was amended.
We wish to be clear. We need rules to regulate what Angara calls the “large universe” of cyberspace—but those rules are not the responsibility of the government alone. We need to encourage more responsibility among online users. We need to make people accountable for what they say, both online and off.
And both Angara and Sotto are right, at least in their most recent statements: The best way to remedy the Cybercrime Prevention Act is to pass a law decriminalizing libel. That has been the journalism profession’s position for the longest time, one which it shares with many other sectors. But we must note that Angara completely misunderstands the most common danger posed by the current libel law.
Libel cases are difficult to win, the noted lawyer and former president of the University of the Philippines said. “Because the rule of libel says the complainant must prove it is utterly false and secondly, that it was motivated by actual malice, not implied. Those two or either one of them is so difficult to prove,” he said.
But in fact, the Philippines’ draconian libel regime has been used not so much to win cases outright as to disrupt the work of journalism, to block the road to transparency with all sorts of obstacles, to tie down a newsroom’s energy and money. In other words, it is used as a means of harassment. That is the lesson we learn from the larger universe we all live in; would that Angara and company heed it.