Draconian measure

By Bong Austero

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.


      • manuelbuencamino

        when did he say that? It was in that infamous open letter that he posted in his blog Feb 27 2006 nung kasagsagan ng protesta laban kay GMA. He asked the leaders of the opposition to give it a rest and to support GMA for the sake of progress. Kaya naman biglang from blogger to regular columnist ng standard today ang istorya ng bata. http://bongaustero.blogspot.com/2006/02/open-letter-to-our-leaders.html

        what’s my take on cyber libel?
        First, Libel is libel. Before the internet and social media came around, it was relatively easy to assign liability. Ngayon ang hirap na sabihin kung sino ang pwedeng masabit sa libel suit at pati na rin kung saan pwede mag file ng demanda. So sa madaling salita, the law did not take into consideration changes in technology of information dissemination.

        Second, the cyber libel is really about controlling expression. Eh di nga ba ang sabi ni Archbishop Sotto of the Diocese of Kinko na ang provision on cyber libel was to make you “think before you click”? So maraming haka-haka at pangamba.

        So sa tingin ko kailangan i-testing ang batas. Hindi lang sa SC kung hindi sa pamamagitan na rin ng isang actual na kaso. Someone, definitely not me, should libel Sotto in a blog or social media, approve libelous comments, and dare him to sue. From there I think we will know whether the law can stifle free expression.

        • So from the a priori, thou shalt not make a law that curbs free speech to the empirical “is this law practicable”?

          When you make a law, make a law that thinks about the people this law applies to. Matakutin pa rin tayong pinoy, at hindi lang sa mga matatapang nag-aaply ang batas.

          If the law is an act that plants fear instead of freedom, eh anong klaseng batas yan, at anong klaseng mambabatas ang gumawa nyan?

          Legislative terrorism ito. It was probably done out of spite. Siningit lang diba, last minute. At napaka backward. They did not even consider facing the real problem of cyber crime; instead they simply wanted Internet publishers stopped. Anong klaseng mambabatas di man lang chinachallenge i modernize pag-iisip nila.

          Kung ikaw matagal na sa internet alam mo siguro madali mag anon. Mahirap mag moderate. Madali kumuha ng domain under an alias tapos madali ilagay maski anong pangalan. Masyadong bobo yung batas na ito.

          Tapos san ka pa makakarining dito s pinas ng totoong opinion, sa Net lang. Mahalaga yan. Napaka-mahalaga. Laking benefit yan sa pag-iisip ng tao.

          The Web is the only genuine medium for true, unvarnished, unadulterated opinion in this country. Yung opinion sa newspaper, edited mga yan, iba di nakakalusot. Sa TV? Sa kapehan? Sa opisina, sa dining table? Sa Net ka talaga matututo ng demokrasya. Try mong mag name drop at gamitin family name mo, maski sino kapang Ayala. Walang kwenta yan sa Net. Si Benig0 sino ba yun? Pero opinion nya magaling, unique na familiar, at maski di ka sang-ayon alam mong naka benefit ka after mong basahin.

          May press freedom dahil iba sa press powerful din pero san ang totoong free speech ng mga ordinaryong mamamayan? Dito lang sa Internet. May pros at may cons syempre. pero yung Pros, unique ito sa Internet, di mo makukuha maski saan dito sa pilipinas. Kung literary editor ka, You will have to go through a mountain of trash before you can find genius, but in the end it’s worth it, even if you have to cut off a forest of trees to get to a Dylan Thomas.

    • manuelbuencamino


      Like I said, definitely not me.

      As to being offended by that line…“people of a certain age . . .” Now that I think of it the line is offensive.

      Does one have to be a certain age to reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust or any other historical horror? If so then he reduced profound reflections to a question of fashion.

      Actually, it’s not that line. It was his open letter to leaders that really annoyed me and continues to annoy me even today. Austero represents a mind-set that thrives under martial law. :)

  1. The fact that one can be sued for cyberlibel is itself scary. Libel is a very difficult case to prosecute. One has to prove malice, etc. When you catch the ire of the powerful and they sue you for libel, they are not necessarily looking for a conviction. They aim to make your life a living hell of court appearances and legal fees for a case that they hope would drag on for years. A conviction is just a bonus. If the government sues you for libel, with the resources at its disposal, good luck.

    (By the way, whatever happened to the case filed by former DSWD secretary Cabral against a blogger for her blog on Ondoy relief? The Secretary sicced the NBI on the poor blogger, using the full force of govt against her, and then filed a libel suit. Bloggers were up in arms against the secretary. Then less than a year later, as DOH secretary, she came out in favor of the RH Bill and all is forgiven. Bloggers petitioned PNoy to retain her as DOH secretary. Bong Austero’s words ring true no matter how we deride them. :-D )

    • Terroristic, anti-democratic, pyschologically sadistic… reminds me of how I was raised. Vague threats, use of vague evidence ala psychic, preventative punishments. nakakatawa ngayon dahil malaki nako, pero eto na naman parang second childhood.

  2. i think the takedown clause and the magnified punishment for libel makes the case that the libel crime is inserted.

    these two things make online libel a bigger crime than paper libel, for absolutely no reason at all. thats crazy. if only for this, there should be a legal challenge that should win.

    i think its not unreasonable to have a libel law that exists in print and online. my problem here is that online libel seems to be a much bigger deal than print libel.

  3. so, the constitutional challenge is on equal protection?

    somehow, but perhaps this is optimistic, the borjal case (based on the ny times case) has already set up a qualified privilege for bloggers when the matter is in the public interest. this means that bringing online libel within the coverage of the revised penal code won’t do a thing, other than make online libel seemingly subject to a greater penalty. the state will still have to prove malice in fact (and not rely on a legal presumption of malice).

    another constitutional challenge is procedural due process. the proper way to do it is explicitly to revise the penal code, and not to just hang a new crime through another seemingly unrelated law.

    still another constitutional challenge is based on human rights law incorporated by treaty into the constitution. harry roque has taken great pains to explain that criminal penalties for libel are void for violating human rights law that is on the same level as the constitution.

    the senators involved are perhaps playing scare tactics. sindakan lang, in tagalog.