But first, a bit of perspective. In the past few weeks, cyberspace was abuzz with different issues, both petty and alarming. There were the endless RH Bill debates, the consequent Sotto plagiarism issue, and the spanking new Cybercrime Law that now includes a provision on online libel.
A while back, while Senator Vicente Sotto III was busy decriminalizing plagiarism, his detractors were resourceful in coming up with allegations of his blog copying, one after another, even publishing side-by-side comparisons of parts of the senator’s speech and the original, supposedly copied text. If such allegations were to be used as bases, it would seem that Sotto’s writers never really learned from experience and continued to unabashedly lift passages from blogs, seemingly confident that the senator’s all-encompassing statement that the ideas he had been presenting were not his alone gave them a good enough license to use borrowed ideas relentlessly and shamelessly, without specific attribution. Then again, as with all allegations, we still have to dig deeper into their veracity before we judge any further. So there.
The real issue, as far as I’m concerned, is not Sotto’s and his writers’ pathetic lack of originality and creativity, but the fact that plagiarism seems to be a rising trend in the country. The even bigger issue is that since there is currently no anti-plagiarism law in the country, anyone can lift ideas just anywhere and get away with it. After all, and the good senator could not have emphasized this often enough, plagiarism is not a crime. No, it isn’t.
But libel is.
Now, the eff of the matter is that people can no longer assign fault to people online like, for instance, those they perceive as plagiarists, among other things. And we have the good senator as well as our very own president to thank for that.
We all know by now that last September 12 (the number 12 is eerily similar to 21, don’t you think?), President Benigno Aquino III signed the erstwhile bill into law with a last-minute inclusion of a provision penalizing online libel. The president apparently approved the inclusion of the controversial online libel provision despite widespread complaints by human rights advocates that the country’s libel law, in which the provision is based, is excessive and direly needs to be amended.
The controversial provision in the new Cybercrime Law states that libel, “as defined under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future,” is now a crime punishable by a minimum of six months and one day’s imprisonment (prision correccional) and a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000 (in addition to the civil action that may be brought by the offended party). Now, that’s such a stiff penalty for, for instance, calling an idiot an idiot online.
On the other hand, Article 353 of the 82-year-old Revised Penal Code (RPC) defines libel as a “public imputation and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstances tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”
Previously, the Philippine libel law did not include online defamation. Article 355 of the RPC specified the following as the only channels through which libel can be committed: writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means. Under the legal principle of ejusdem generis, messages in social media networks and blogs could not be considered “of the same kind” as those enumerated above and, as such, defamation through these online media couldn’t be considered a criminal offense.
The new Cybercrime Law has effectively changed this.
It can be recalled that in October 2011, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) declared that the Philippine libel law is excessive and incompatible with international human rights law, particularly with “Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” to which the Philippines is one of the signatories.
Sadly, this declaration was largely ignored by the government and instead of decriminalizing libel, the government even went a step further in the other direction and added online information systems as possible venues for libel. Yes, instead of decriminalizing libel in the country, the government even broadened its scope to include messages posted on the Internet — the main venue of communication in this new, Internet-savvy world.
Personally, I find this development not just utterly disappointing but also rather scary.
Although the passing of the Cybercrime Law as a whole may have been for a noble purpose, powerful people with ignoble interests may hijack the law itself and use it for their own selfish ends. It may be used as a weapon to get back at critics who are only reacting to perceived wrongdoings, inadequacies, and flaws.
For one thing, the Philippine libel law in itself is too vague for comfort and can be interpreted in so many absurd ways. As such, the online libel provision can be easily twisted and abused and be used merely as a tool for harassment. This is particularly worrisome in a country where the judicial process is generally seen as highly cumbersome and inefficient.
I foresee innumerable cases of online libel filed even without probable cause by smirking politicians, followed by long, convoluted court trials involving rich and happy prosecutors and poor and unhappy defendants. I am also worried that some opinionated online media personalities and free-spirited bloggers may be used as “samples” by less-than-noble individuals for the purpose of showing off this piece of legislation’s teeth. Or simply for the purpose of exacting revenge.
The louder message I get from the passing of the Cybercrime Law is that the government — the senators and the president alike — would rather silence critics rather than maintain an effective check and balance system against abuse in the seats of power. We all know that the president himself, much like Senator Sotto, had been the target of several malicious tirades in the past, most of which were delivered online. Has he had enough of such and is this new law his way of preventing such criticisms from continuing and getting out of hand?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that RA 10175, for the most part, is something that our increasingly Net-dependent society needs right now, particularly those sections that pertain to true cybercrimes like hacking, password theft, online fraud, and child porn. I just don’t get why our legislators and our good president felt the need to include a provision pointing to an antiquated, outdated libel law that has long been contested by human rights advocates. Wait. On second thought, I get it.
Nevertheless, I believe that the inclusion of online libel in the Cybercrime Law is a big blow to our already shaky democracy. We all know that freedom of expression has always been the cornerstone of a true democracy. Not only is it a fundamental human right, it is necessary in the proper functioning of a truly democratic society, which the Philippines supposedly is. The problem is that the new Cybercrime Law is a form of punitive censorship that penalizes those who publish or broadcast offending material (offensive to whom, we can only surmise). And I have always believed that any form of punishment for the true expression of thoughts and feelings is more authoritarian than democratic.
I am deeply saddened by the fact that the good president himself claimed that we are his bosses, only to pass a law later on that would make us think twice about expressing our true thoughts and opinions. Bosses, indeed. Whichever way one looks at it, this kind of control is not healthy in any democratic set-up.
I agree that those who abuse their freedom to express by publishing malicious lies and baseless accusations should be stopped, one way or another. But to pass such a loosely framed law with a provision that’s so ridiculously vague that it is dangerously open to convenient misinterpretation is definitely not the way to do it — especially when done within a supposedly pro-people administrative framework.
So what can we expect from here on in? I’m really not sure how Filipinos in general will react to this piece of legislation in terms of their blogging and social media activities. I’m not even sure how our online media friends will take this alarming development, although some bloggers and online media people are already starting to publish their thoughts about the matter.
I guess things will remain as they are until, and I’m afraid this will happen sooner or later, some individuals get sued and imprisoned because of this law and netizens start reacting. Only time will tell, though, how this pans out. I just wish this new law would not be used for witch-hunting by previously criticized invidivduals. I also fervently hope that something happens and the government wakes up to the realization that it has committed what I believe is its biggest faux pas to date.
I have always been a staunch defender of free speech. I believe that if we lose our inherent freedom to express, we’d lose our ability to control our own destiny and lose our dignity as a nation. For, as Charles Bradlaugh once said, without free speech, no search for truth is possible and no discovery of truth is useful. Better there be a thousandfold abuse of free speech than a single denial of it. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.
Al Dimalanta is a writer, musician, professor, photographer, marketing communicator and, as he said, an occasional techie. He is a quality assurance manager, editor, freelance PR consultant, a former professor of marketing communication and advertising and heads a punk band named THROW. Email Al at email@example.com