MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS and netizens warned the Senate that the cyber libel provision in Republic Act 10175 has a “chilling effect” on the practice of free expression in the country, with alleged violators facing imprisonment without any chance of probation just like hardened criminals.
This, even as the original drafters of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, as R.A. 10175 is also called, admitted that the original bill was never meant to include online libel.
Justice Assistant Secretary Geronimo Sy, head of the DOJ’s Cybercrime unit and part of the technical working group that hammered out the earlier version of the cybercrime bill, said the online libel provision “was never there when we submitted the bill to Congress.”
“It was not designed for online libel,” Sy told the committee. “It bled our hearts that a technically good and simple legislation ends up having (to be defended.)”
During a hearing on R.A. 10175 by the senate committee on science and technology on Monday, netizens and media organizations called for the removal of the cyber libel provision of the law, and the decriminalization of libel.
The law, as allowed by a recent Supreme Court ruling, expands the coverage of libel to the digital domain, and increases the penalty for online libel by one degree. But as one blogger put it, an ordinary househelp could now potentially face longer jail time under the cyber libel provision than a newspaper with a circulation of 300,000.
Atty. Gilbert Andres of Media Defense Southeast Asia, a network of lawyers defending freedom of of the press in the region, said that the increase in the penalty of libel done over the internet means a guaranteed prison term for those who are convicted.
Andres told the committee that while ordinary libel provides for imprisonment of six months to four years under the Revised Penal Code, R.A. 10175 increased this to six years minimum.
“The implication is that probation is not extended to those with a maximum sentence of six years, so that anyone convicted will inevitably serve a prison term,” Andres told the committee headed by Senator Ralph Recto.
Recto for his part pointed out that in order to decriminalize libel, Congress would have to repeal Sections 353 to 362 of the Revised Penal Code that defines and penalizes libel.
Engineer Pierre Tito Galla of Democracy.ph told the committee that while netizens understood and agreed with some provisions of the law such as the need to curb cybercrime and malicious hacking, “this is where the common ground ends.”
Galla said his group opposes laws “that are overly broad” that they restrict freedoms that are protected by the Constitution. “To borrow from John F. Kennedy, we are here to promote the freedom doctrine,” Galla said.
Blogger Tonyo Cruz said many netizens are asking for the repeal of certain provisions of the Cybercrime Act because “a good law should uphold the Constitution and the five basic principles of internet freedom.” These are freedom of expression, access, openness, innovation, and privacy.
“The state has no right to enter our bedrooms or control our computers,” Cruz said.
The Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) for its part pointed out that the Cybercrime law does not follow a “human rights framework.” In fact, PIFA representatives told the committee, the law in the form allowed by the Supreme Court “places every netizen under surveillance, even if the government says there are still no acts of surveillance conducted.”
Sy added that the Justice Department had already readied itself for the implementation of R.A. 10175, with the implementing rules and regulations “almost done.” However, revisions may still be necessary to take into account the recent Supreme Court ruling on the law that struck down several provisions.
For example, Sy said that the Justice Department had already trained 300 prosecutors in cybercrime prevention and online offenses. “All these things are already a reality, because electronic evidence is already key (to a lot of offenses),” Sy told the committee.
“We will do as much as we can with the IRR without going beyond the bounds of the law (and the Supreme Court ruling),” Sy said.
Asked by committee chairman Ralph Recto if the law was necessary to charge netizens with libel, Sy said that netizens could be made accountable with existing laws such as the Revised Penal Code.
One blogger, DigitalFilipino’s Janette Toral, however said she was wary of decriminalizing libel since this would encourage some people to be irresponsible.
“Ako ay naniniwala pa rin na ang dangal ng tao ay hindi nababayaran. Pag sinira mo ang dangal ng tao, kelangan makulong ka,” Toral told the committee.