Ssshhh: we all need to be more polite, and speak more softly on the Internet nowadaysâat least if youâre posting a comment anywhere in Philippine territory.Â No more comments like âOh yeahâwell my booger looks more seductive than youâ on Facebook. No more Tweets about Trina being a slut. We all know why:
Anyone you offend on Facebook or Twitter can now take you to court for being a cybercriminal.
This is because the recently passed Cybercrime Prevention ActÂ (Republic Act No. 10175 â Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012) thoughtfully included libel among the âcybercrimesâ that you could commit either willfully or by accident.
In case you havenât heard of it, our libel laws, as stated in the Revised Penal Code provisions on âCrimes Against Honorâ (Article 355, Revised Penal Code) are really, if you think about it, designed to discourage criticism and in a lot of cases, humorâand the Law, in all its glory, is all about grim seriousness.
This is why Lady Justice wears a blindfoldâshe’s not allowed to lauch, which is exactly what she might do if she happens to see an old Tito, Vic, and Joey film. In the rare instances where Lady Justice laughs, she tends to swing her scales and her sword this way and that, which is not a good idea since she spends a lot of time in courtrooms.
Letâs look at the definition of libel: âArt. 353. Definition of libel. â A libel is public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.â
That is so broad that anyone with a crafty lawyer and the intent to punish an enemy can use that law to jail the latterâor at least, cause said enemy a lot of headaches.Â You canât even make a funny comment on the Internet about a dead person anymoreâthe court might decide that it âblackensâ that dead dudeâs memory.
Now, was the person who created and posted this graphic on Facebook deliberately trying to blacken the memory of former President Ferdinand Marcos? WaitâŚ now that this has been posted as an example, purely as an illustration for discussion, has a cybercrime been committed?
These are questions that you, dear reader and netizen, have to face whenever you are about to post something on the Internetâwhether in social networks, in blogs, in Internet forums, and in comment fields like the one below this column. Thatâs because the Cybercrime Prevention Act applies to everyone, not just journalists and bloggers.
This is what makes the Cybercrime Prevention Act a potential tool for the repression of criticism and the punishment of criticsâthe insertion of libel among the cybercrimes gives malicious people the weapon to send their enemies to jail on flimsy evidence (the law accepts prima facie evidence of wrongdoingâin other words, if the police say you committed libel on the Internet, off to court you go.)
I believe that jilted wives and cuckolded husbands are particularly vulnerable to being jailed as cybercriminalsâmore likely the wives because theyâre the ones who usually go on Facebook to unleash a torrent of unholy insults on their husbandsâ mistresses. Some of their posts look like this:
âMalandi ka. Alam mo namang may pamilya na si Tito. Ang ganda mo, âteh.â (You slut. You know that Tito is a family man. You think youâre so pretty, sister.)
This entire post reeks of libel against the mistress. For one thing, it is an âimputation of a crime, or of a vice or defectâ against the other woman. But she really is a slut, the wife could object, citing as proof the fact that said the mistress had sex with her husband.
Still, the libel law does say that you can libel someone even if you state a âreal or imaginaryâ defect about another person. Of course, since the wifeâs comment was posted on the Internet, where potentially thousands of people could see it, then itâs a âpublicâ act. I would presume in this case that there is some malice involved on the part of the wifeâitâs highly unlikely that sheâs being nice.
Even worse, the wife could still add a comment like, âSige, landiin mo pa! Magsama kayo. Simsimin mo lahat ng putok ni Tito!â (Go ahead, be a slut to the max! You deserve each other. Inhale all of Titoâs body odor fabulously!) In which case, Tito could also sue his wife for libel.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court of the Philippines has also ruled that even ironic, suggestive, or metaphorical language could be considered libelous. You donât have to directly call someone a liar and a thief to get sued for libel. Itâs enough to suggest it or state it sarcasticallyâas long as you do so in a public manner like posting on the Internet.
In a ruling of the Supreme Court of the Philippines in the case of âLacsa vs. Honorable Intermediate Appellate Court and People of the Philippinesâ, back in 1988, the conviction of the defendant Pedro S. Lacsa was in part based on U.S. jurisprudence, which the Supreme Court quoted:
Words calculated to induce suspicion are sometimes more effective to destroy reputation than false charges directly made. Ironical and metaphorical language is a favored vehicle for slander. A charge is sufficient if the words are calculated to induce the hearers to suppose and understand that the person or persons against whom they were uttered were guilty of certain offenses, or are sufficient to impeach their honesty, virtue, or reputation, or to hold the person or persons up to public ridicule. (Carter vs. Andrews , 16 Pick. [Mass.], 1.)
This puts poets, comedians, and all writers with a capacity for subtlety, wit, and irony under threat of jail.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act is, overall, a much-needed law. We really do need a law to deter and punish real crimes in cyberspaceâhowever, I doubt the rightness of using the law to keep netizens from using âbad wordsâ. Thatâs because, sometimes, we must call things as they are: stupid is stupid. Stealing is stealing. Evil is evil.
Itâs ironic, and rather sad, that President Noynoy signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act as it is, with the libel provisions includedâafter all, if some of the remarks of his dad about Marcos were circulated on the Internet, if there was an Internet at the time, his dad could have been convicted as a cybercriminal.
Then again, if thereâs one lesson that one learns after one works at the Senate, itâs this: all Senators, and all politicians, ultimately, protect each other. People are asking why Senator Sotto wasnât censured by other Senators for his alleged plagiarismâthatâs actually a preposterous idea, expecting such a thing to happen, in reality. As a body, the Senate will always protect its own. As a social class, politiciansâand the President is one of themâdo the same.
Which is why the lone voice of dissent by Senator Tiofisto âTGâ Guingona was actually mildly surprising. For him to call the libel provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act as âprior restraintâ is really notable. Still, at this point, not even he can really do anything to change the controversial provisions there.
There are groups now who are preparing to challenge the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act. This is laudable and is to be expected as long as we profess to be a democratic society. Whether the Supreme Court agrees with them is another matter.
Now that the Cybercrime Prevention Act in force, how should we, as writers, bloggers, and Internet users conduct ourselves? Well, I would suggest that it should be business as usual. Thatâs because if a law really violates our constitutionally guaranteed, basic right to free expression, then we are even duty-bound to disobey that law. Also, we would be duty-bound to speak against that law at every opportune moment.
Thatâs because the fastest, easiest, and very first way to lose our freedom, as individuals and as a people, is to lose the right to speak out, to criticize, and to complain about our leaders especially when theyâre doing wrong. A lot of times, the easiest way to lose our freedom is to shut up.
Besides, we could use more politeness, more circumspection, and a bit more thinking before we mouth off on the Internet. After all, even your husbandâs mistress has feelings, tooâunfortunately, these include the feelings she was having for your husband during Valentineâs Day evening, when he sent you that text message about doing overtime.
In which case, the wife would gladly violate the Cybercrime Prevention Act, just to give that mistress a piece of her mindâand her fist, and her foot, etc.