The issue is public interest, not freedom of the press
I’ve always wanted to be a journalist, that’s why I took up Mass Communications. I am now in my fourth year.
Recently, our class discussed the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the libel provision in it included. We discussed its effects, how it would affect the practice of journalism in social media, how libel has been used by the rich and the powerful to harass media people and how the libel provision impacts on freedom of speech and expression.
While most of my fellow students were against it, I argued otherwise—balancing the interest of the public versus the interest of the media.
I pointed out that libel laws (which sadly have not been decriminalized) have not curtailed free press and free speech or the freedom to express oneself. Despite the libel laws, Philippine media are still considered among the freest in the world, although not a few journalists have been put behind bars after being found guilty of libel by the courts. It cannot also be denied that not a few journalists were slapped with libel suits just to harass or silence them after they exposed erring government officials.
Admittedly, with the cybercrime law, journalists would have to watch their steps in a new, if unfamiliar, forum. Many news organizations now have their own websites, to complement their regular news outlets, thus allowing them to reach more people.
The Internet has given freedom of speech and expression a new dimension. Now any Tom, Dick and Harry can publish anything about anyone. This is where the main issue lies.
In the mainstream media, news reports and accounts pass through the trained eye of editors and deskmen. In social media and blogging sites, articles are not subjected to the same rigorous standards. And mainstream media exercise responsibility and accountability by policing themselves and adhering to the highest standards of journalism. That is a layer of protection from libel. This is not the case with social media and most blogging sites.
I believe that public interest is served by the libel provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Act. The law provides protection from nonjournalists who think they can spread lies and rumors through the Internet, never mind if they harm reputations, without being made accountable for it. A lie or a rumor posted in social media has a worse effect than one that’s spoken because it can be read and seen just by anyone, even those who have no interest in it.
With the new law, victims of cyberbullying, harassment and character assassination can now have a legal recourse. Cyberbullying does not discriminate. Ordinary citizens can be victims too.
Journalists have nothing to fear about the libel provision. The risk of being charged with libel is part of the journalists’ territory, one of the hazards of their job. This is not a freedom of the press issue. It is a public interest issue involving the jungle world of social media.
—MARIAN THERESE AVES,