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MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE - 12:42 p.m.) Criticism of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 has spread beyond the country’s borders with international human rights and media organizations warning on Friday of the threat to freedom of expression and of the press the new law poses.
The law, signed by President Benigno Aquino III on September 12, has drawn criticism from media organizations, freedom of expression advocates, legal experts and Internet users for its inclusion of libel among punishable crimes as well as provisions perceived to be tantamount to prior restraint.
The new law also drastically increases the penalty for “cyber-libel” with a jail term of up to 12 years, as opposed to the six-year maximum under the Revised Penal Code.
The protests against the new law have included an attack overnight Wednesday on several government and private website by hackers calling themselves “Anonymous Philippines.”
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams, in a statement, said the new law “needs to be repealed or replaced” because it “violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression” and runs counter to the government’s “obligations under international law.”
The International Federation of Journalists, on the other hand, joined its affiliate, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in criticizing the law.
“The IFJ is greatly concerned that the inclusion of online content in the Act could be used to curtail freedom of expression online,” said the IFJ Asia Pacific. “We are further concerned that the government of the Philippines continues to delay the passing of the FOI (Freedom of Information) bill, which clearly stands against their stated commitment to press freedom.”
Earlier, the NUJP called the enactment of the anti-cybercrime law “sneaky and betrays this [the Aquino] administration’s commitment to transparency and freedom of expression.”
Much of the concern over the libel provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act has centered on social networks such as Facebook and Tweeter, of which Filipinos are among the most prolific users, as well as blogs.
This was noted by Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams who said, “Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader -- including government officials -- bring a libel charge.”
“Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime,” he stressed, joining calls made by freedom of expression advocates for years, and which remain unanswered, for Congress to decriminalize libel.
“So long as it stands, the new cybercrime law will have a chilling effect over the entire Philippine online community,” Adams said.
However, HRW also noted that the Aquino administration has shown little inclination to support legislation pending in the Philippine Congress to decriminalize libel.
The Philippines’ libel law, enacted during the American colonial period and intended mainly to stifle dissent, continues to consider the offense a criminal act. Media organizations contend the law on libel has most often been used by people in power to harass journalists and muzzle critical reportage.
Even the United Nations Human Rights Committee has called for the repeal of the libel law, saying it violates article 19 on the right to freedom of expression and opinion of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory.
“The use of criminal defamation laws also has a chilling effect on the speech of others, particularly those involved with similar issues,” HRW said.
“When citizens face prison time for complaining about official performance, corruption, or abusive business practices, other people take notice and are less likely to draw attention to such problems themselves, undermining effective governance and civil society,” it added.