This week, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III last September 12, will soon take effect. The law aims to prevent or at least curb crimes committed on the Internet which include hacking, data theft, cyber-pornography, and cyber-bullying. And libel, too?
Should not be a crime
“But libel should not be a crime,” said Rachel Khan, professor and former chairperson of the Department of Journalism of the UP College of Mass Communication. “While we agree that libel should not go unpunished, journalists should not be held criminally liable,” she added.
Libel cases against journalists, Khan said, should only be civil cases to keep the journalists from being exposed to harassment. At present, journalists charged with libel need to post bail and face imprisonment if proven guilty.
Khan believes that the inclusion of the country’s existing libel law in the Cybercrime Prevention Act is like slipping back in time and joining the ranks of other Asian countries with less free press and imposing stringent libel laws.
In its statement released recently, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) likewise raised the need for the country to update its outdated libel laws. Even, the “United Nations Human Rights Council itself declared it excessive and called on the Philippine government to review the law with the end of decriminalizing libel,” the statement said. (http://www.nujp.org/2012/09/cybercrime-law-threatens-freedom-of-expression/)
The sudden move by the country’s lawmakers to insert an old law in the Cybercrime Prevention Act on its third and final reading had caught many journalists, civil rights activists, internet citizens as well as members of the academe by surprise.
“Sneaky and (it) betrays this administration’s commitment to transparency and freedom of expression,” said the NUJP statement. “The inclusion of libel among the crimes that may be committed with the use of computers poses a threat not only against the media and other communicators but anyone in the general public who has access to a computer and the Internet.”
Similarly, Khan said her department was also unaware of the law’s enactment. And this, she explains, is partly because her department did not receive any letter from the senate asking for comments from the academe. “We did not receive a letter. Unlike in the case of the FOI (Freedom of Information) bill where we would occasionally receive a letter,” she said.
Khan also believes that the media is partly to blame for not sounding the alarm sooner. “I also blame the media. May pagkukulang din ang media,” she said, lamenting that it would probably not have happened if the media had been faithful in its watchdog function.
The information technology (IT) beat, including the Infotek section of InterAksyon.com, however, has had its eyes fixed on the bill since its first reading but their numerous reports remained a faint voice in the wilderness, until press freedom guardians such as the NUJP reacted to the new law and civil rights activists became alarmed.
The country’s libel law was enacted some eight decades ago when print media still dominated the mass distribution of information. Even the radio and television at that time were not seriously regarded as news media outlets but only as entertainment media.
Today, the mass media environment has completely changed but the libel law has remained the same. The Internet that we know now is only about a decade old and as such, it is still largely an unchartered territory.
While preventing cybercrimes in this unchartered territory is one important and urgent matter; regulating its content and the flow of which is another matter. The Internet’s lifeblood is information. Regulating it may not be healthy for the society as a whole.
What the law gravely failed to consider is that we are now in the age of participation, where the gatekeeping function of the press is now slowly eroded and readers or audiences are no longer passive receivers of information but are in fact active in the gathering, processing, and even in the distribution of information, including news.
Think about this. Will the so called long arm of the law be long enough to catch up with the thousands of sharers, likers and twitters of potentially libelous information that have become viral?
Clearly, the Internet is the future. It is a mistake to bring laws from the past into the future without a careful scanning of the parameters and thorough consultations with all stakeholders, particularly the citizens of the Internet.
Skewed balance of power
The wisdom behind libel laws is to serve as check on possible abuses of the press, being the fourth state, so as to keep power balanced between and among all the branches of the government as well as the society.
However, the new law disturbs this balance. As the NUJP put it, the new law “actually broadens the scope of a libel law so antiquated and draconian.”
Khan also believes that with the Cybercrime Prevention Law, journalists who blog the stories that they could not write in their media outlets will be most affected since they could now be threatened with a criminal case, have to post bail for each case, and worse, face imprisonment.
The new law then gives the government and the powers that be unfair advantage as government could now impose prior restraint to Internet publishers to “prevent a crime” while extending the law’s reach to include ordinary citizens as well.
Ordinary citizens who lack legal machineries afforded to journalists belonging to media outlets will be most affected. “They just have to be very careful then,” Khan said, adding that the new law clearly infringes upon their freedom, too.
Moreover, journalists know their libel law; ordinary citizens don’t. And for this reason, a massive information and education campaign on the cyber-law as well as on Internet etiquette and media ethics must first be conducted prior to the law’s taking effect.
Not all that bad
But Khan proposes an even more drastic course of action. “Why not repeal the (Cybercrime Prevention) Law?” she rhetorically asked, adding that this would be an easier option.
Even Senator Chiz Escudero had admitted that indeed the insertion of the “sneaky” libel law provision is a mistake on their part. But unlike Khan, he does not call for its repeal. Instead, he proposes to file a bill decriminalizing it.
However, Khan believes, the decriminalization of libel should be another battle. But she added that because that Cybercrime Prevention Law is not all that bad, a similar law should be enacted in the near future.
This time, however, hopefully without committing the same mistake of copying from the past.