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It's a threat to Philippine press freedom.
In no uncertain terms, this is how representatives from local and international media agencies criticized Republic Act No. 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which was signed into law last September 12.
Online libel as a crime
Of particular concern to observers is the law's provision on online libel. Chapter 2, Section 7 states that "all crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code [RPC]... if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by... this Act."
As defined in the 82-year-old RPC, libel encompassed mostly traditional communications media. Article 355 of the Code specifically spells out penalties for libel "commited by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition or any similar means."
However, the Cybercrime Law now extends the scope of libel beyond these traditional means of communication.
Worse, online libel brings with it stiffer punishments: the law states that the penalties for such online crimes "shall be one degree higher than provided for by the [RPC for libel committed in traditional media]."
'Draconian', antiquated RPC
Media organizations and legal experts agree that the law's provision on online libel has thus given more teeth to the already "draconian" RPC.
"Pinalakas 'yung libel... Inilipat 'yung problema sa old media papunta sa new media," said Luis V. Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and former dean of the UP Diliman College of Mass Communications.
Teodoro also said that, even prior to the Cybercrime Law, the RPC's provisions on libel were already being used against government critics. "Madalas nagagamit ito sa pangha-harass ng mga journalist," he said.
With the Cybercrime Law in place, Teodoro warned that such harassment could now be extended to bloggers, domain owners, webmasters, chatroom moderators, and even just commenters on third-party websites.
On the other hand, Atty. JJ Disini, UP College of Law professor said, "Online libel was already explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court in 2010. The new cybercrime law doesn't affect it. In fact the SC protected those accused of libel by restricting the ability of victims to choose the place where they will file the case."
"(The Cybercrime Law) is unecessary. Sa tingin ko, most of what this law penalizes ay nasa batas na natin —tulad ng child pornography," Teodoro said.
Media organizations in the Philippines and abroad have aired similar concerns over the Cybercrime Law.
In a statement, the CMFR said that the passing of the Act "suggests how restrictive rather than expansive is the mindset of the country’s legislators, and of Mr. Aquino himself when it comes to enshrining in the law those principles—accountability and transparency, press freedom and free expression, etc.—to which he has repeatedly declared he is committed."
Further, Teodoro told GMA News in a phone interview that the "fundamental problem is that legislators are not committed" to providing laws to promote the freedom of expression, and information.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the Burgos Media Center shared similar sentiments.
"Compare the haste with which this measure and the Data Privacy Act became law, compared to Congress’ lethargy on a bill that President Benigno Aquino III has repeatedly declared a priority yet never lifted a finger to help shepherd through the legislative mill – the Freedom of Information Act – and it becomes all too apparent that this president never meant anything he said with respect to our rights and our freedoms," the NUJP pointed out. (See related report.)
"The presence of the decayed idea of libel in the crimes enlisted in the bill may be used to attack not only the cyberpress members but also to the progressive netizens like activists and political bloggers. Through this law, the Trapos can now easily file charges against ‘critics by claiming that cyber journalist have threatened their life and property," the Burgos Media Center added in a separate statement.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also said that the new law —particularly its provision on libel - "poses a significant threat to press freedom and limits freedom of expression in the Philippines."
“The IFJ is greatly concerned that the inclusion of online content in the Act could be used to curtail freedom of expression online. We are further concerned that the government of the Philippines continues to delay the passing of the FOI bill, which clearly stands against their stated commitment to press freedom,” it said.
Media advocates have long been calling for the decriminalization of libel in the Philippines.
In October 2011, no less than the the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) declared Philippine libel laws "excessive" and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the Philippines is a signatory.
The commission made this declaration in response to the 2008 complaint filed by Filipino broadcaster Alexander "Alex" Adonis, who spent almost two years in jail for libel.
NUJP and CMFR also cited this declaration in their statements against the Cybercrime Law.
Currently, Senate Bill No. 3244, filed by Senator Gregorio Honasan, seeks to decriminalize libel. But as of August 6, it is still pending in the Committees on Public Information and Mass Media, and Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws.
However, Teodoro believes that the passing of this bill comes with a price.
"(Parang) may ibibigay 'yung right hand, but the left hand takes away something," Teodoro said.
Teodoro said that the proposed bill seeks to make the media organizations register before the Securities and Exchange Commission, "in effect, licensing."
However, Teodoro said that it is "unlikely" that the congress will pass this bill into law in light of current legislation. — TJD, GMA News