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There’s the Rub

A very bad idea

/ 12:20 AM February 24, 2014

I join those who feel let down by the Supreme Court ruling to uphold the constitutionality of the cybercrime law. Despite its striking out a few provisions and restricting the penalties only to the original sender of the libelous material.

At the very least, Miriam Santiago is right about the latter being nebulous. The social media being vast, intricate and fluid, finding the original source, even when that source uses a real name, would be a miracle. The Internet is not like newspapers, TV, and radio which are few in number—yes, even radio which is small and finite compared to the infinite constellation of blogs in an ever-exploding cosmos. How do you pinpoint an external source? How do you punish it/him/them?

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But that is the least of the worries with the libel provisions in the cybercrime law.

First though, let us be clear. Is the problem of cyberbullying real? Is the problem of online libel real? Is the problem of rumor, innuendo, or plain lying in the social media real? Yes, to all the above. Those problems are not just real, they are serious.

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Those problems in fact already existed in the mainstream media, which was the reason politicians were demanding to get a “right of reply,” and which was as effective a cure as insecticide to a toothache. That was true of radio particularly, which drew from an oral tradition, which allowed things to be said with impunity, their authors subsequently denying having said them or insisting they were misconstrued. Unlike print where the original statement was set out in black-and-white and could be referred back to.

Over the years, when I talked about the killing of journalists, I often got the comment from my audience that half the time, the so-called journalists had it coming to them. This was especially so outside Metro Manila, people complaining that radio in particular openly invented stories, many of the commentators there being on the payroll of public officials rather than of the radio stations. They lied through their teeth without fear of punishment—other than the one that came with finality. I always replied that if we agreed to tolerate the murder of the corrupt, abusive and deceitful, why don’t we start with politicians?

The social media has merely magnified that problem though “merely” is an obvious understatement to go by the mindless rant it unleashed late last year. Or indeed the more routine way people like to parade their ignorance, as seen in their foot-in-mouth comments. You remember Mark Twain’s quip that it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought of as a fool than open it and confirm the fact. Despite the fact that much of the stuff in social media, unlike radio, remains written—although its power lies in being multimedia and interactive—local social media at least draws tremendously from oral tradition. From the tradition of  kwentong  barbero  or gossip, from spontaneous, irreverent, instinctive, knee-jerk, inventive, destructive, stream-of-consciousness, raw, uncensored shooting-the-breeze, thoughts, or lack of it.

It has its merits, but it clearly has its demerits too. It can be a good indicator of the public pulse, but it can also magnify cultural foibles, crab mentality, chief of them. Both are amply in evidence.

But online libel, whatever its caveats, is about as brilliant a solution to this as Rodrigo Duterte’s proposal to kill rice smugglers. At the very least, libel is libel in whatever medium it appears, and you can always seek or take legal action wherever and whenever you see it—however that takes time, effort and money. Why invent a new category of crime for a thing that already exists in the statute books?

Far more importantly, the social media is like elections, it is not perfect but it is far more a boon than a bane. The complaint about elections of course is that the “wrong people” win in them—the popular, the  bobo, the rich, who are almost by definition, the corrupt. True, but that is not an excuse to scrap them. Or—which is the equivalent of trying to improve the quality of social media by limiting it to “responsible” engagers—to limit the voters only to those who have finished elementary school or can show proof of intelligence. However tempting that is, it doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse.

Whatever its faults, whatever its imperfections, the social media is the best thing to have happened to us. It helps monumentally to make our democracy a real democracy. What has always made it unreal is that it lacks the one thing the real democracies have, which is the active participation of the people, the public, the governed. Here, that participation is minimal, nominal, marginal, limited only to voting in elections. The people disappear afterward, being effectively ignored, dismissed, or scorned. Not so in the Western democracies: They remain an awesome force in governance, in policymaking, in the shaping of society, not least through the power of public opinion.

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For the first time in our lives, we are getting a whiff of it, an iota of it, a semblance of it through the social media. For the first time in our lives, the ordinary citizen is able to weigh in on national affairs on a regular and sustained basis. Of course that will show excesses, revelations of power will always be heady and euphoric and unrestrained. The mainstream media itself has been here for a long time and it continues to show excesses today, despite being more regulated, despite being patrolled by editors. And the social media is largely a free-for-all. But it is an important development, it is an exciting development. It is not to be feared, it is to be welcomed. It doesn’t deserve to be held down, it deserves to be encouraged.

Online libel holds it down.

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TAGS: cyber libel, Cybercrime law, nation, news, Supreme Court
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