On the same week that people of a certain age went into reflection mode to remember the horrors that befell this country 40 years ago, the President of the Republic signed the Cybercrime Prevention Law.
On the same week that people swore “never again” as they relived the dark years of the dictatorship when citizens were denied civil liberties—when freedom of expression was reduced to a theoretical concept that people pined for because speaking about or criticizing the excesses of government could mean summary execution or detention—the electronic version of martial law went into effect in the country.
How did this happen in a country that is supposed to be a bastion of democracy and at a time when the prevailing order rose to power on the strength of its much avowed defense of civil liberties?
The law sneaked through both houses of Congress surreptitiously.
Netizens and civil rights activists were caught flatfooted —they, along with everyone else in this country, simply woke up middle of last week to learn that their right to privacy has been whittled down. Worse, one can now be charged with a crime called electronic libel, which carries a penalty more onerous than ordinary libel. Under our current penal code, a writer, editor, or publisher who is found guilty of ordinary libel could be meted out a jail term of six months and one day to four years and two months. Thanks to the new cybercrime law, anyone who makes a comment in Facebook or Twitter or on a blog that is deemed libelous could be jailed for a minimum of six years and one day up to 12 years. This makes the person ineligible for parole since the minimum penalty is beyond six months. The proponents of the new law have made sure that anyone who would be convicted of the crime of electronic libel would have to serve a jail term.
This happened under the reign of the son of the mother of democracy in this country.
I am at a loss as to how something like the cybercrime law could be passed into law given this administration’s supposed staunch commitment to upholding civil liberties. The President is supposed to be surrounded by people who know better when it comes to these matters—there are quite a number of cabinet secretaries who are active netizens; for instance, Secretary Ricky Carandang and Undersecretary Manolo Quezon used to be very active bloggers. Most Cabinet members use Facebook and Twitter a lot. In fact, this government has practically endorsed the use of social networking sites as a means for citizens to get updated on government advisories during calamities and disasters.
There is also the matter of the law being impractical. Do we really want our justice system to be saddled by cases spurned by commentaries in blogs and social networking sites including the frivolous and trivial? Do we really have the means to prosecute everyone who commits electronic libel? If even just a fraction of Filipinos who think Vicente Sotto is unfit to become senator decides to deliberately commit mass electronic libel by maligning the senator in social networking sites, do we have enough resources to make millions accountable? What is the point of having a law if it cannot be implemented anyway?
The timing of the signing of the bill sucks. I don’t think that the senators who voted in favor of the bill did so out of fear that what happened to Sotto would also happen to them. Still, you can’t stop people from speculating that the two events are related.
I agree that there should be a means to police malicious and immature commentary in the Internet. I agree that there are far too many people who seem to treat social networking sites as nothing more but repository of their personal rants and complaints. But we don’t need to hold a gun against everyone’s temple just to make a point. The cybercrime law is just too draconian a response to a relatively minor social problem.
I have been informed that certain civil rights advocates will take the issue to court. I support this move. We must not allow what happened 40 years ago to happen again in this country.