‘Bragging Rights’

by Juan L. Mercado


“Brainless children boast of their ancestors,” an Asian proverb says. Sen. Vicente Sotto III basked in his grandfather’s achievements, notably the “Sotto Press Freedom Law.”

Authored by Sen. Vicente Sotto, Republic Act 53 shielded scores of journalists from revealing news sources. Remember the scandal of leaked test questions for 300,000 teachers in a civil service exam? In a probe, House members tried to ferret out informants. The late Philippine News Service’s Romeo Abundo and I invoked the Sotto Law. We are thankful and endorse the long overdue move to expand the law’s shield for broadcast.

At a Cebu Press Freedom Week panel discussion Friday, Don Vicente’s grandson ran into a buzzsaw. Did you snip the Penal Code’s libel provision, then paste it into the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012? reporters badgered Sotto.

On Jan. 24, 2012, Sotto piggy-backed the rider on the pending cybersex crime measure, Raissa Robles’ blog on the ABS-CBN website documents. Without public hearing, he expanded the old clause on libel to those “committed through a computer or any other similar means that may (emerge) in the future…”

Sotto III denied wedging Section 4-c (4) on libel into the new law, Sun Star Cebu reported. Not my fingerprints, thank you. But he backed the libel rider. Mainstream media are professionally trained and observe ethical standards, Sotto told Cebu Daily News. “But currently, social media doesn’t.” A number of online writers post without verifying data. “They are not accountable to anyone.”

He’s right. But gagging is not the answer. Presenting better reasons is. As a result, he is twisting in the storm that his first-denied-now-admitted amendment uncorked.

President Aquino signed the bill into law on Sept. 12. His signature came days before he visited the new museum, in a military fort, where his father and Sen. Jose Diokno were secretly imprisoned under martial law censorship.

“The Spanish inquisition has long been disbanded… Why are we reviving it today through constitutionally prohibited ‘prior restraint’?” asked Sen. Teofisto Guingona III. He was the only senator who bucked the bill because of, among other things, the Sotto rider. “A Supreme Court challenge is an option.”

“We will see the Aquino administration in court on this one,” Prof. Harry Roque of the UP Law School added. “There can be nothing sadder than suing the son of icons of democracy for infringement into a cherished right… Other laws enjoy presumption of regularity. This cybercrime law, insofar as it infringes on freedom of expression, will come to court with a very heavy presumption of unconstitutionality.”

“Prior restraint” restricts material from being heard or distributed at all. This is the “most extreme form of censorship” and is a constitutional no-no.

UP Diliman and the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, meanwhile, banned the showing of the controversial anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims.” Roque pushed through with showing the video in his Bill of Rights class. Asked by the MTRCB to explain, Roque twitted back: “I do not have a license from your office (but) I have the Constitution.”

The new law’s rider offered “no distinctions, no qualifications” as to who shall be held liable for libel, noted the Inquirer in its editorial “A blow against free speech.” It does not even say “what actions constitute the crime.”

Let me count the ways then, suggests a Rappler roundup of comments by legal experts and press organizations.

The Revised Penal Code already includes online publication as a platform for crime, De La Salle College of Law Dean Jose Manuel Diokno notes. Sotto’s rider is “redundant.” Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña agrees. The word “publication” refers to all kinds, whether online or not.

The new law has “50 shades of liability” Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila Law Dean Ernest Maceda says. A “computer system,” is the gateway to the online world. If someone uses this gateway to tweet a defamatory comment, is he liable? “Given the vast domain of the online universe, will expanding liability for libel allow the arbitrary closure of websites?” And does the phrase “any similar means,” in the new law, refer  to the Internet? Ultimately, it is the Supreme Court or Congress that should define what the phrase “any similar means” really means.

Are we dealing here with “borderless crime”? asks a lawyer who requested anonymity. Section 21 states that the “Regional Trial Court shall have jurisdiction… if any of the elements was committed with the use of any computer system wholly or partly situated in the country…” What does “partly” mean?

Government ignored the 2011 declaration of the UN Human Rights Committee that the libel law is “excessive” because it puts violators behind bars, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said. “Criminalizing libel violates freedom of expression.”

Instead, the new law ratchets penalties for libel. Section 6 states: “The penalty to be imposed shall be one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code.” Ordinary libel is punishable with imprisonment from six months to four years. But those who commit libel using a “computer system” may stew in the slammer from 6 to 12 years. They won’t be entitled to parole. All would serve time under the Sotto rider.

As being written, the legacy of Sotto III will bear no resemblance to the broad freedoms of Sotto I. So what? One can always brag of ancestors.

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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