Furor over Cybercrime law
Philippine press was once one of the freeest – if not the freeest – press in the world. Not anymore. Today, freedom of the press, as we once knew it, is a relic of the past. Members of the Fourth Estate would defend their freedom like they would defend their own lives. Indeed, 72 journalists have been killed since 1992 for investigating or exposing graft and corruption in government. Among them were 21 journalists who were part of a group of 57 unarmed civilians massacred in Maguindanao three years ago in what many believed was politically motivated.
When President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III signed Republic Act 10175 – known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act – last September 12, little did he know that it would unleash a torrent of protests not just from the traditional members of the Fourth Estate but from the “netizens” of Cyberspace. Indeed, no sooner had P-Noy stamped his imprimatur on the new law than concerned people filed their petitions before the Supreme Court. So far, seven petitions have been filed and more are expected to follow.
At a forum organized by Sen. Teofisto “TG” Guingona – he filed the fourth petition — last September 27, the following were some of the concerns raised:
1. Any person who writes something online that is deemed “libelous” can be prosecuted under the Cybercrime Prevention Act and the Revised Penal Code. That’s double jeopardy, a violation of the Constitution.
2. Punishment for traditional print media libel is up to four years and two months while online libel is punishable by 12 years of imprisonment.
3. Under the new law, “people can even be sued for old Internet posts.”
4. The new law also punishes those who “republish libelous content online via retweets on Twitter or sharing on Facebook.”New law is unconstitutional?
Last September 28, a group consisting of Ellen Tordesillas, Alexander Adonis, Gisela Cascolan, and lawyers Harry Roque, Rommel Bagares and Gilbert Andres filed another petition – the fifth – that challenged Sections 4 (c) , 5, 6, 7 and 19. They claimed they are unconstitutional and asked the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop its implementation.
The petitioners argued that R.A. 10175 was in violation of Section 4 of Article III – Bill of Rights — of the Constitution, which states: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
The petitioners also hold that the new law is not in consonance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that the Philippines ratified on Aug. 22, 1989. ICCPR provides, among others, that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.”
Furthermore, ICCPR states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Malacañang digs in
In reaction to the seven petitions filed to date, Malacañang admitted that it didn’t see the legal challenges against the new law coming. However, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said that Malacañang was standing by the new law’s legality. She said, “Freedom of expression is not absolute but comes with responsibility, and the same principle should apply on the Internet.” She added, “The Revised Penal Code provides that anybody could be liable for libel, but the responsibility has never stopped our press from being free.”
She called the petitioners’ concerns “a little paranoid” for thinking that the government was planning to institute a “filtering structure,” which could be potentially used for “political and social censorship.” But Filipino netizens – estimated to number more than one million… and growing fast – would not be convinced by Valte’s arguments.
Sword of Damocles
In an attempt to allay the public’s fear of this frightening draconian law, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assured netizens that their constitutional rights would be protected in the implementation of the new law. In a statement she releases a few days ago, she said: “Any power or authority granted by the law to Department of Justice and secretary of Justice will be exercised judiciously and prudently, within the standards or parameters set forth in the law and with due regard to fundamental, human rights of individuals.” That was then.
But just a few days later, October 1, De Lima’s tone changed. She told the media, “We have our law now and it is our duty to execute the law, unless otherwise declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or unless repealed by the crafters of the law, the Congress.”
What De Lima was saying is that she would be judicious and prudent to the extent that the law is not violated. It’s like putting a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of netizens. Clearly, her message is: “Toe the line or else…”
This leaves netizens feeling like they’re virtually living under martial law, and forced to follow a law they believe is unconstitutional. Interestingly, P-Noy signed R.A. 10175 nine days shy of the 40th anniversary of proclamation of martial law on September 21, 1972. And, ironically, P-Noy’s father, the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., was one of the hundreds who were arrested and detained. One might ask, “Is the country heading the wrong way again?”
During the martial law era, the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos criminalized libel and used it to suppress the freedom of the press. Today, libel remains a criminal offense and has survived many attempts to decriminalize it. And in a brazen act, the government — instead of decriminalizing libel — doubled down and enacted R.A. 10175, which many believe is the most repressive piece of legislation since the EDSA People Power revolution of 1986.
But like the old martial law days, a lot of netizens would go “underground” to avoid detection and arrest by government enforcers. The netizens would assume aliases or pen names in social media and continue exercising their God-given freedom of expression. The Cybercrime law could not intimidate them. On the contrary, it would only embolden them to become more vocal and fiercely rebellious in the expression of their views. That’s human nature. And it’s been like that since the beginning of time.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.” Yes, indeed.