Trimmed Down Anti-Cybercrime Law: Should We Be Content With It?

The Supreme Court once again came out with a Solomonic decision: it declared certain provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 as unconstitutional but upheld some as constitutional. The decisions of the Supreme Court are, at best, Solomonic because it is not immune to the political environment it operates in. Historically, it acts according to the political atmosphere of that time and tries to come up with compromise decisions.

With the recent decision of the Supreme Court, the Cybercrime Prevention Act could now take effect, minus the provisions that the high court declared as unconstitutional.

What the Supreme Court essentially did was to stop the Aquino government from appropriating more powers – the authority to take down a website without a court order and to monitor traffic data on the internet – but it took away the freedom to express online by declaring the provision on cyber-libel as constitutional.

In defending the Supreme Court decision, President Benigno Aquino III claimed that the anti-cybercrime law, particularly the provision on online libel, would not curtail the freedom of expression. He argued that all rights, including the freedom of expression, have a limit: for as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others. He also cited the fact that libel could already be applied in the print and broadcast media and the law merely applied it to the internet.

Well, President Aquino was right about one thing: rights have limits and this limit is being determined by law. The rights of groups of people could and would impinge on the rights of others. Take for example the right to property. The right of landowners to the land they inherited or bought, or was able to grab through land titling for that matter, impinges on the right of peasants to the land they till and the right of the poor to shelter. In these cases, the law favors the right to property of landowners, which is why they are being paid a high price for their land whenever it is covered by agrarian reform and peasants are made to pay amortization. As for the urban poor, they are simply being swept away. The same is the true when the right of mining, logging, and agro-industrial companies, which is being granted to them by virtue of concessions/licenses issued by the government, clashes with the right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral domain. The law provides that all these companies have to do is to give a semblance of undertaking consultations with the indigenous peoples. Then the mining, logging and agro-industrial companies could already displace the people from their land with the help of the military and the police.

President Aquino’s arguments for libel are fallacious, at best. Libel cases have been and are still being used to curtail the freedom of expression. From 2004 to 2007 alone, Mike Arroyo, the husband of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, filed 46 libel cases against journalists.

Defamation suits are so being overused and misused by giant corporations such that human rights and environmental defenders have coined a term for it: “SLAPP suit” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). In 2002, when Dr. Romeo Quijano, a toxicologist, and her daughter Ilang-Ilang, who is now a journalist with alternative news agency Pinoy Weekly, came out with a report on the health effects on the people of Kamukhaan village in Davao del Sur of the pesticides being used by the Lapanday Agricultural Company (Ladeco) in its banana plantation since the 1980s, Ladeco filed a libel suit against the toxicologist and his daughter. The US-based Environmental Defender Law Center noted then that “the Philippines in particular has seen a huge proliferation of these lawsuits in recent years.”

Also in July of 2007, Lafayette Philippines, Inc., a mining company, filed a P10 million ($218.5 thousand) libel case against the trustees of the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines, and its executive director Frances Quimpo, before the Pasig City Prosecutor’s Office, when the group came out with a fact finding mission report on the devastating effects of mining operations in Rapu-Rapu island in Bicol province, south of Manila.

In October 2007, a charge of “grave slander” was filed by mining firm MTL Exploration Company against Barangay Runruno Landowners Association (Rulanas) Secretary Josie Guillao at the Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Villaverde and Quezon, Nueva Vizcaya because of Guillao and her group’s opposition to mining operations.

In most cases, it is the rich and powerful who file libel and defamation suits. The fact that libel is being used against people who print or broadcast stories critical of politicians, government officials and big business is bad enough, extending their reach to the internet, the last platform where the people could expose and oppose the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful, in real time, further closes all venues for exposes’ and expressions of dissenting opinions.

Worse, the libel law in the Philippines is fundamentally flawed. For one, a person could be the subject of a warrant of arrest once the case is filed in court. It is even worse if the accused is convicted. Under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, the penalty for libel is “prision correctional in its minimum and medium periods or fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party”.

Remember Davao radio broadcaster Alex Adonis who was convicted of libel and imprisoned for two years at the Davao Prisons and Penal Farm on February 20, 2007 because of a case filed by then Rep. Prospero Nograles?

Second, the truth of what has been published, broadcasted, and now, uploaded would not acquit the accused. One has just to impute malice to result in a conviction, and that is not so difficult to do because under the law “Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown.”

So could we simply accept the Supreme Court decision declaring online libel as constitutional? Definitely not. We should fight against the promulgation of the fundamentally–flawed Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. While we are at it, let us also fight for the decriminalization of libel. (bulatlat.com)

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