Cyber Crime Law Plus Online Libel Clause: Fulfilling or Frustrating?

Cyber crimes beyond the ambit of the E-Commerce Act might not have been in the vocabulary of Philippine criminal laws in the previous years—but not anymore. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which was long overdue, has been successfully passed into law upon official approval of President Benigno S. Aquino III on September 15, 2012. However, its controversial online libel clause was met with cold shoulder by human rights advocates and media practitioners alike.

The said cybercrime law, also referred to as Republic Act 10175, is “an act defining cybercrime, providing for the prevention, investigation, suppression, and the imposition of penalties, therefore, and for other purposes.”

According to this law, cyber criminals shall not be excused from illegal computer activities. They may no longer seek refuge from the legal doctrine “Nulla crimen sine lege” (“no crime without law”).

As the GMA News and Public Affairs team has always reiterated, “think before you click.” Or else, you might endure penalties ranging from arresto mayor or a fine worth at least Php50,000 to reclusion temporal or a fine worth at least Php500,000 arising from cybercrime violations.

If you are planning to access, interfere, or intercept computer data or system without the owner’s consent, you just might find yourself guilty of cybercrime offenses punishable under the new law. Hacking, which is equivalent to a breach of “confidentiality, integrity, and availability of computer data and systems,” has just been officially declared illegal.

Online forgery, identity theft, and fraud shall be sanctioned by the State, too. Any form of computer-related offenses is not likely excused under the newly enacted law. No one shall be allowed to mess with your online identity or your online files to pursue malicious ends without getting a share of penalties prescribed by law.

There’s no room for sexual lewdness and sexual exploitation in the World Wide Web, at least within the Philippine jurisdiction. So indecent content, either eliciting cybersex or child pornography, shall also be criminalized under the new law, which is an extension of the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 that penalizes the use of minors for sexual exploitation.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act also prohibits spam or “unsolicited commercial communications,” but not likely to deprive internet marketing pursuits of online businesses. Instead, it only seeks to regulate online ads and promos disseminated by business owners to protect end-users. Take it as an extension of the Consumer Act of the Philippines, particularly introducing online “protection against deceptive, unfair and unconscionable sales acts and practices.” As long as there’s no deception or consent breach involved, internet marketers are off the hook.

Online libel clause won’t get left behind…

And here’s the clause that sparked controversies. The R.A. 10175 has also adopted the online libel clause, which happens to be an extension of Philippine Libel Laws such as the Revised Penal Code Article 354. While the clamor for decriminalization of Philippine Libel Laws has been incessant, that didn’t stop legislators from adopting the online libel clause.

Apparently, online publication of “malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of the dead” shall likewise be punishable.

The new law, in particular, is not likely to vindicate the bashers of Senator Tito Sotto from various social networking sites. Senator Sotto even contended that the Cybercrime Prevention Law may become instrumental to file for legal actions for defamatory posts against his name.

R.A. 10175 might have delighted the senator, but it earned rage from human rights advocates. Kabataan Party List Representative Raymond Palatino expressed his disappointment during the House deliberations by saying, “Woe to the NBI agent and DOJ prosecutor who will be swamped with cybercrime cases filed by showbiz actors, politicians, business tycoons, and other untouchables who want to punish their online critics. Instead of dealing with cyber warfare, our agents will be investigating online libel.”

Going back to the appeal of human rights advocates and media practitioners when they waged a campaign toward the decriminalization of libel, they argued that libel offenses comprise an abuse of Philippine laws, and a form of violation in itself.  It was in March when the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ, joined forces to call for the abolition of libel laws.

Such call for immediate decriminalization of libel happens to be the offshoot of the declaration made by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) asserting that Philippine Libel Laws are incompatible with the “freedom of expression.” The UNHRC did not prescribe decriminalizing current libel laws, though. Instead, it only called for reform to better meet freedom of expression laid down under Article 19, Paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights.

UNHRC, among others, stressed that the State should recognize “defense of truth” in hearing libel cases. The Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC), however, “presumes malice, as a general rule, in every defamatory imputation, without regard to its truth or falsity. The person accused of libel  is required to prove that the imputation was made with good intentions and justifiable motives. Exceptions to this are private communications and fair comment.”

There is no doubt that Article 354 of the RPC providing the “presumption of malice” clearly robs the accused of invoking the “defense of truth” as if saying that he or she has already been weighed and measured, but found wanting without having undergone the second premise of due process—that is trial before the courts of law.

What’s more alarming is that Philippine libel laws, in turn, hold “presumption of guilt” over the accused, instead of “presumption of innocence” enjoyed by most defendants in criminal prosecutions. As a result, it shifts the burden of proof onto the shoulders of the defendant to prove good intentions in doing so. That is not surprising why court dockets are easily filled with libel cases—it’s easy to make accusations, especially if it’s up to the accused to prove the complainant wrong in court trial.

Malicious intent, by no means, should hide under the guise of truth. As a crime against honor, libel deserves a room in the criminal justice system since the State likely upholds human dignity as much as individual freedom of expression.

Senator Gordon, in his explanatory note, once wrote, “While the Constitution seems to preclude any exceptions to the exercise of the freedoms of speech, expression and of the press, our courts have ruled that these constitutional freedoms are not absolute. Indeed, while our society accords immense value on freedom of expression and speech, our laws also recognize the likewise legitimate need of  the individual to protect and defend himself where the exercise of these otherwise constitutional freedoms unduly injure or compromise a person’s good name or standing in the community.”

 

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