Senators File Bills to Counteract Supreme Court Ruling on Online Libel and Decriminalize Libel

PIFA protesting against "cyber martial law" in 2012
PIFA protesting against “cyber martial law” in 2012

Following the Supreme Court (SC) ruling on online libel and the outcries from concerned netizens, local Senators have voiced out their own opinions and filed bills to decriminalize libel and repeal the online libel clause in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

An Appeal to Amend the Cybercrime Law

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano filed a bill to repeal the law’s provision on online libel, and urged his colleagues to do the same. He pointed out that the provision suppresses internet users’ freedom of speech. “True, we should not libel each other in the internet. But it is also true that the internet is a different kind of medium,” Cayetano said. “Hindi katulad yan, halimbawa, ng dyaryo (It’s not the same as, for example, a newspaper).”

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago voiced out a similar opinion, saying, “I just think it was a bad idea for the Supreme Court to look at the Internet as another form of publication.”

She also called the ruling on the online libel provision “erroneous”, stating that it violated two principles of constitutional law against vagueness and overbreadth.

“Of course,” Santiago said, “the Supreme Court said it is only the sender who is liable, not the person who is commenting or who is receiving. But what do these words mean? Who is the sender? The service provider? The individual netizen? Or if they’re a group, how do we identify them? Or even worse, if they are not using their true identities, how are you going to go beyond what they profess to be their identities on the Internet? That is the main problem today.”

Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. also filed a bill to lower the penalties for online libel. “The Internet, particularly social media, is the closest thing we have to [the] Athenian brand of democracy, where everyone can speak his mind freely. I think the Senate should give a high priority to bills seeking to protect freedom of expression in cyberspace,” he said.

Renewed Call to Decriminalize Libel

The SC’s ruling has renewed the call to abolish prison time for those found guilty of libel. Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code penalizes those found guilty of libel with 6 months to 4 years imprisonment, or a fine (from 200 to 6,000 pesos).

Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, who initially filed the bill to decriminalize libel during his term in the Lower House, has taken up his cause once more. “I have been pushing for lighter penalties for libel even before the passage of the Cybercrime Law. … Though I agree that libel committed online should be penalized, as provided in the Cybercrime Law and as ruled by the Supreme Court, I don’t think these offenders should be imprisoned,” he said.

Senators Teofisto Guingona III and Chiz Escudero filed similar bills to decriminalize libel.

“We must not forget how hard we fought for the democracy that we now enjoy, and that includes our freedom to speak against erring public officials. It is counter intuitive therefore for us to have come this far and yet have the cloud of possible imprisonment impinge on the liberties that the very democracy we have fought for seeks to protect,” Guingona said.

In another statement, Cayetano said that the online libel ruling will clog up the country’s courts, and that “Walang mangyayari kung hindi ang mga piskalya, walang ibang gagawin kung hindi mag-prosecute ng Internet and social media libel cases (Nothing will happen aside from the fiscals having nothing to do other than proscecute Internet and social media libel cases).”

Santiago also seeks to decriminalize libel for both legal and practical reasons. “There will be extreme difficulty in law enforcement and if you cannot enforce a law, you better strike it off the records because it promotes contempt for the law,” she said. “Number two, it will add to the burgeoning prison population of this country …Is it practical? How many people are using the Internet every day, day to day?”



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