A Restrictive Mindset: First Law Since 2000 Affecting Cyberspace Communication
STATEMENT OF THE CENTER FOR MEDIA FREEDOM & RESPONSIBILITY ON THE PASSAGE OF THE CYBERCRIME PREVENTION ACT OF 2012
The successful passage through the legislative mill and their immediate signing into law by President Benigno S. Aquino III of bills affecting the media and their fundamental task of gathering and disseminating information, among them the Data Privacy Act (Republic Act 10173) last August, and the Cybercrime Prevention Act (RA 10175) this September, suggests how restrictive rather than expansive is the mindset of the country’s legislators, and of Mr. Aquino himself when it comes to enshrining in the law those principles—accountability and transparency, press freedom and free expression, etc.—to which he has repeatedly declared he is committed.
RA 10173 and 10175 breezed through both houses of Congress within months after they had been introduced in 2011, and apparently were in no danger of being vetoed once they reached Mr. Aquino’s desk.
The Data Privacy Act, among other provisions, penalizes those in government who release information of a personal nature, which seems a reasonable enough restriction in behalf of the right to privacy—until one recalls that information on the personal lives of government officials often has a bearing on their performance as public servants accountable to the citizenry, and is therefore among the legitimate concerns of the news media.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act, meanwhile, incorporates the 82-year old libel law in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) in including libel among the crimes that may be committed through the use of computers. Under the provisions of the RPC on libel, the penalty for violators is imprisonment of six months for every count of libel committed. Libel as a criminal offense has been used by past administrations as well as local officials today to harass and intimidate journalists. The outstanding example of its use against journalists was the filing by Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo of 11 libel suits against 46 journalists during the disputed presidency of his wife Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. And yet Congress has through the decades ignored the demand from journalists and human rights groups for the decriminalization of libel.
Compare the speed with which RA 10173 and RA 10175 were passed—in both instances with only perfunctory public hearings—with the difficulties Congress is having with passing a Freedom of Information Act (FOI), and with Mr. Aquino’s by now obvious aversion to it.
And yet certain honorable members of Congress have not been miserly with their lip service to the alleged need for an FOI. As for Mr. Aquino, since he became President he has stopped talking about the need for one, after pledging during the 2010 campaign for the Presidency that he was all for it in behalf of transparency and as a means of insuring government accountability. The bottom line, apparently, is that neither Congress nor Mr. Aquino want an FOI act passed, period.
The passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act also suggests among other possibilities that both Congress and Mr. Aquino have chosen to ignore the 2011 declaration of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) that the Philippine libel law is excessive because it penalizes violators with imprisonment, contrary to the human rights protocols to which the Philippines is a signatory, and therefore must at least be reviewed towards decriminalizing libel. Either that, or the authors of the bills, and Mr. Aquino himself, are unfamiliar with both the UNHRC declaration, as well as with the long-standing demand to decriminalize libel in order to put an end to the use of the libel law to intimidate and silence journalists. Apparently there is little hope that libel will ever be decriminalized, RA 10175 having in effect further strengthened it by widening its application.
Finally, a word of caution. RA 10175 is the first law affecting communication through cyberspace that has been passed in this country since the eCommerce Act of 2000. Prior to its passage, the Philippines had been distinguished among its Asian neighbors for the absence of regulatory legislation affecting the Internet. It can signal the opening of the floodgates of Internet regulation that will affect Filipino netizens, given the restrictive mindset of the country’s leaders. It is a distinct possibility to which journalists and bloggers, ordinary citizen and anyone committed to free expression through whatever medium, should be alert, and must be prepared to combat.