Amend the Anti-Cybercrime law

Editorial, The Manila Times

The Anti-Cybercrime Law may have been crafted with the best of intentions, but the final version of the bill poses nothing less than a most serious threat to our freedom of speech.

The full name of the law is the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. What it does is expand the coverage of libel.

The biggest mistake committed by the law’s authors was the last-minute insertion of a libel clause, which was not in the original version. That version received widespread support from concerned sectors who recognized that cybercrime is a growing phenomenon that must be arrested. But no one ever thought that the authors of the bill would go as far as to include online libel to the coverage of the law.

It should not be lost on anyone that the Philippines is one of the few countries in the world where libel is considered a criminal offense, and not the civil offense that it should be.

It is incredible that in a country that prides itself as having one of the freest presses in the world, anyone can still be imprisoned for writing his or her thoughts. While no one can disagree that to intentionally ruin another person’s reputation is libelous, the punishment should be commensurate to the gravity of the crime.

For the longest time, local media has been asking, begging, cajoling and demanding that Congress rewrite the country’s libel laws, and many a senator and congressman have said that they would do what was necessary. Instead, the situation has been worsened for media practitioners who are active in cyberspace via their blogs.

It is not just media that is under constant threat by the country’s archaic libel laws. Ordinary citizens who write their opinion in any media are also subject to the extreme penalties of those laws.

Look at the backlog of the country’s court cases. There is a fair percentage of one party accusing another of libel, thereby seeking to imprison that offending party. Were these cases civil suits, judgments would have been rendered quicker. Guilty parties would have to pay civil damages. Imprisoning anyone for writing any falsehood would hurt the guilty party where it hurts most—his or her pocket. But no one need spend so much as a minute in jail for a crime that causes no physical harm.

In Vietnam this week, three bloggers were jailed for “anti-state propaganda.” Is this what the country’s lawmakers want to happen here? If the law is not amended ASAP, that most sacred freedom of speech will be curtailed to the point that the Philippines may as well declare itself a communist or fascist state where no one is allowed to speak his or her mind.

They may deny it until hell freezes over, but the new law actually increases the legal punishments for libel. Where before the penalty for printed libel was six months and one day to four years and two months’ imprisonment under the Revised Penal Code, the new law would imprison anyone convicted of committing libel in cyberspace to six years and one day up to 12 years.

The law as it is written will have a chilling effect on the country’s growing number of bloggers who are also considered as citizen journalists. The situation will be worse than the martial law era when only “the true, the good and the beautiful” could be written about the Marcoses.

Take the anti-cybercrime law to the extreme. Imagine a young man who has just turned 18. He is now legally an adult. In a fit of anger, he blasts his neighbor in his Facebook page, calling that person all sorts of names. Under the anti-cybercrime law, he can be imprisoned and may not be released until his 30th birthday.

Ridiculous perhaps, but it’s the law.

The Supreme Court to hear challenge

Of the country’s lawmakers, it appears that only Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona recognizes the dangers inherent in the libel clause of the anti-cybercrime law. He has therefore promised to challenge the new law before the Supreme Court.

There may still be time to take corrective measures since the bill was signed into law by President Aquino only last September 12. Its implementing laws and guidelines will be drafted by an inter-agency body within 90 days from that date.

Under a worst-case scenario where Guingona’s contesting of the law fails to bear fruit, then media can only hope that the guidelines be most specific about what constitutes online libel. Muzzling anyone from using the electronic media to speak his or her mind is the worst thing that can happen.

For the record, The Manila Times does not condone the wanton destruction of a person’s reputation through the use of print or electronic media. Anyone who spreads lies and half truths about other parties should receive reasonable punishment. But even a minute in prison is already unjust and unreasonable punishment in our book.