SC: Internet libel constitutional

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

MANILA (Updated) -- Authorities can now implement the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 after the Supreme Court (SC) favored on Tuesday the constitutionality of some its provisions, including Internet libel.

Only the author of the libelous post can be held liable and "not those who simply receive or react to it," SC spokesperson Theodore Te said in a press briefing.

A separate prosecution and conviction for libel under the Revised Penal Code and child pornography under the Anti-Child Pornography Act was also prohibited to avoid double jeopardy.

Stricken off the Republic Act 10175, meanwhile, were section 4(c)(3), which penalizes the posting of unsolicited commercial communications; section 12 or the real-time collection of data; and section 5, which lists "aiding or abetting in the commission of cybercrime" such as child pornography, unsolicited commercial communications and Internet libel as an additional offense.

Also declared unconstitutional was Section 19, which allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to restrict or block access to computer data without a court order.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) earlier agreed with the 15 petitioners that Section 19 must be scrapped for being a tool of prior restraint.

Associate Justice Roberto Abad wrote the decision while Associate Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Presbitero Velasco took no part.

Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, who was at the SC to defend the constitutionality of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), said he will only comment on the decision after studying its content and impact.

"We have to read it first because it's so cryptic," he told reporters.

Petitioner Kabataan party-list was looking at filing an appeal, saying the remaining portions of the law are threats to Internet freedom.

"Libel in itself has been abused for so many years to harass and malign journalists. What's stopping cunning individuals from exploiting the new online libel provision? I see none," said Kabataan party-list Representative Terry Ridon.

"It is lamentable that in the Philippines, we now have a set of firm restrictions over cyber activity, yet we do not have a law that lays down the rights of Internet users," he added.

The Court's decision failing to declare libel as unconstitutional is contrary to the United Nations pronouncement that the measure is a violation of freedom of expression, said another petitioner Harry Roque.

"We will continue the fight to nullify criminal libel. Cyber libel infringes on free speech," he said.

Journalists and bloggers had opposed prosecution for online libel (Section 4(c) (4)), saying the provision is an attack to freedom of speech and violation of due process and double jeopardy principle, where a person cannot be tried for the same offense twice.

However, the government told the SC that it was necessary to negate the oft-used defense that libel committed through the use of the Internet is not punishable since the 84-year-old RPC only runs after erring print publications for malicious content.

Section 4 (c) broadens the coverage of libel, which now includes those with the use of "computer system or other similar means that may be devised in the future."

Hours before the release of the decision, militant groups Gabriela and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) trooped outside the SC compound in Manila calling for the scrapping of the law in its entirety.

Some netizens also changed their profile pictures on social networking site Facebook to black in response to the call of Kabataan party-list against the measure, which was enacted on September 25, 2012.

The SC blocked its implementation through a 120-day temporary restraining order (TRO) on October 9, 2012, which was extended indefinitely in February last year.

Amendatory bills were filed in Congress last year but these were not passed due to the long break in preparation for the midterm elections. (Sunnex)

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