AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL-PHILIPPINES (AI-PH) is reminding the Philippines that it is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that its current libel laws, including a new one penalizing libel online, are “inconsistent with the enjoyment of freedom of expression.”
This developed as bloggers and internet users announced plans to file a motion for partial reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the online libel provision of Republic Act 10175, also known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled on the constitutionality of the controversial law by striking down some provisions, but upholding others. The Court recognized online libel as a criminal act, but said that this only applies to the original authors or producers of the material. Netizens who receive, share, and comment on such materials are not liable under the Cybercrime Act.
In a statement to media, AI-PH said the United Nations Human Rights Commission had earlier declared that the country’s libel laws are not consistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. AI-PH said it hopes that the Supreme Court hears petitions for review of its rulings and abides by the Philippines’ international human rights obligations.
“We can only hope that the Supreme Court will not remain blind to this when appeals to the ruling are filed,” the AI statement said.
In a statement released to media, the Bloggers and Netizens for Democracy (BAND) said it will be filing a motion for partial reconsideration of what it called “the draconian Cybercrime Law.”
“Our view is that the court has ‘unfinished business’ to settle in order to protect citizens’ basic right to free expression, whether offline or online,” said BAND.
“Moreover, the court should not miss its chance to do a perfectly constitutional and historic act: Raise the banner of free expression and Internet freedom all over the Philippines.”
The group said it will join other petitioners “in arguing that rotten and obsolete Philippine libel law be decriminalized and not be promoted or expanded in any way.”
At the same time the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said it is dismayed that the Supreme Court ruling not only increased the penalty for libel online, but also declared the original libel law constitutional.
Media organizations have been trying to have Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code repealed or amended by having libel itself decriminalized. The Philippines is one of few countries in the world where libel is considered a criminal offense punishable with a prison term. Libel in the Philippines is also unique in that an allegedly libelous statement is presumed to be tainted with malice until the accused proves otherwise.
However, the CMFR said there was a “partial victory for free expression” in the recent SC ruling, since the Supreme Court struck down other controversial provisions of R.A. 10175, including the take-down clause that allows government to block access to digital materials deemed offensive in the law, and the real-time collection of traffic data.
“The Court decision not only legitimizes the higher penalties for online libel; by implication, it also declares the original libel law constitutional,” CMFR said.
According to the media group, the Cybercrime Law raises the penalties on libel cases stipulated in the 82-year-old Revised Penal Code (RPC) to one degree, from a minimum of six months of imprisonment per libel count to a minimum of six years.
“Libel as provided for in the RPC thus remains today as problematic as it has been for over 80 years to press freedom and free expression, and in addition has become an even bigger constraint on free expression when committed online,” the group added.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) echoed the same sentiments, calling the SC ruling “a half-inch forward but a century backward.”
The NUJP’s statement said that the decision on the legality of online libel adds another element “to an offense that former colonizers had, a hundred years ago, declared criminal in nature to stifle dissent.”
The NUJP also warned that the new provision could be used as a “convenient tool for the corrupt and the inept in power to harass and muzzle those with the temerity to bring their venalities to light.” (Mara D. Cepeda)