The dangers and downsides of criminalizing online libel in the Philippines

ImageOn 18 February 2014, the Supreme Court of the Philippines (hereinafter referred to as SC) upheld the constitutionality of online libel provision in the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Law. Sec. 4(c)(4) of the said law declares that “[t]he unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future” constitute a punishable cybercrime offense. In the decision penned by Justice Roberto Abad, the criminalization of online libel is constitutional as far as the original author of the potentially defamatory post is concerned. That is to say, netizens (a portmanteau of “internet” and “citizens”) who have simply received or reacted to a libelous post will not be penalized nor be covered by online libel.

Hours after the decision was released, civil society groups and all concerned netizens expressed their condemnation through social media. The general consensus was that the SC ruling is draconian and repressive as it is an imminent threat against free speech and enjoyment of civil liberties. The hullabaloos going around ever since the decision was rendered are to be anticipated. The public uproar is a manifestation of how disturbing this recent turnout of events could possibly be.

Criminal libel is frequently criticized as one of the most abused means in infringing freedom of expression and suppressing press freedom in the country. The provision identified above does the same: it stifles the citizen’s right to freedom of expression but this time, on the cyber sphere. Someone has described the Internet as the most democratic medium ever created by humankind. I could not agree more. The Internet is indeed a free market place of ideas. Any legislation which purports to criminalize libel on the Internet cannot only deter free willing of thoughts but can also obscure the truth, as that legislation can instill fear of possible punishment to citizens at each moment online. A journalist might just opt to remain silent instead of divulging fraudulent acts of a public official to evade risks of being imprisoned. This is not to mention the irrational provision that online libel entails much severe punishment than other forms of libel (Section 6, Cybercrime Prevention Law).

Notably, the Philippines is one of the State Parties to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).Article 19 of the ICCPR provides that (1) everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and (2) everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. This was further expounded in the 102nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), where it was mandated that “State parties [of the ICCPR] should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.” As a signatory, the Philippines is obliged to faithfully adhere to the provisions set by the treaty.

Under the doctrine of transformation, international laws ratified by the Philippines, the ICCPR being one among many, form part of the law of the land. The same is stated in Article II, Section 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. The SC is mandated to uphold the supremacy of the constitution in its interpretation of laws and rendering of judgments. But unfortunately, in this decision, the SC has patently veered away from its constitutional duty.

From a previous article, I remember pointing out that the people put its trust to their government because they expect it to be their role model for, and protector of, equality, freedom, and their human rights. Since the freedom of expression is one of the fundamental liberties that everyone should possess, the government should, by all means, be duty-bound to protect (and not trample) this right. Curtailing someone’s freedom of expression online is allowing human rights to be under threat by people who want to manipulate the public. Essentially, the Internet should never be an instrument of fear, but a potent tool capable of empowering people; mobilizing the citizens to demand for responsive governance, justice, and public accountability; and advancing the ideals of democracy.

 

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 4 April 2014. To read the articles written by my colleagues, click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/articles

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