Bloggers and Netizens for Democracy (BAND), a non-government organization, launched a “black protest” to oppose the Supreme Court (SC) ruling to uphold the constitutionality of a provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 that penalizes online libel.
“This [provision] spreads fear among ordinary people.” We used to freely and confidently express our opinions on what’s going on around us, especially when criticizing the scandals in the government, but now they can threaten us, the government can scare us by saying, ‘you’re in trouble, we can sue you for libel,’ said BAND representative Tony Cruz during an interview with GMA News. (Statement translated from Filipino)
When the high court announced its ruling on Tuesday, BAND members changed their social network profile pictures to completely blacked-out photos to signify how they “mourn” the death of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The group is now preparing to appeal the SC ruling since Cybercrime Prevention Act provides heavier penalties for online libel than the kind in other media platforms.
BAND is only one of the fifteen petitioners against the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. In October 2012, the high court put the law’s implementation on hold after receiving petitions questioning the constitutionality of some of its provisions. The petitioners condemned the law for making it easier for authorities to spy on citizens using electronic media, increasing the penalties for libel, and threatening citizens’ freedom of speech. They specifically wanted the SC to strike down the provisions contained in the following:
- Sections 4 and 5, which cover the various offenses covered by the law, including online libel
- Sections 6 and 7, which impose higher degrees of punishment for those guilty of libel while allowing them to be charged separately for the same offense under the Revised Penal Code
- Section 19, which authorizes the Department of Justice to restrict or block access to computer data that violates the law
In its ruling, the Supreme Court deemed the penalties set for online libel, commercial communications, and child pornography unconstitutional, along with Section 19. The following were also deemed unconstitutional:
- Section 4(c)(3), which considers unsolicited commercial communication as a cybercrime offense
- Section 12, which covers the collection or recording of traffic data in real-time, associated with specified communication transmitted by means of a computer system
SC spokesman Theodore Te announced the ruling in a press briefing. He also stated, “The high court… declared Section 4(c)(4), which penalized online libel, is not unconstitutional with respect to the original author of the post but unconstitutional only where it penalizes those who simply receive the post or react to it.”
The Continuing Battle for Online Freedom
The reactions to the SC ruling are mixed among those petitioning against the Cybercrime Law, with some seeing it as a step towards victory and some believing otherwise.
Lawyer Harry Roque said, “This is indeed a major victory for privacy and the right of the people to be secure in their communications,” but he also said the fight against the provisions on criminal libel will continue.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) called the ruling “[a] half-inch forward but a century backward. … By extending the reach of the antediluvian libel law into cyberspace, the Supreme Court has suddenly made a once infinite venue for expression into an arena of fear, a hunting ground for the petty and vindictive, the criminal and autocratic.” The union says that if the SC remains blind to this fact, “there can only be one response lest we be forced to surrender all our other rights—resistance.”