Senators want libel decriminalized amid cyberlaw snafu

By Marvin Sy, The Philippine Star

Posted at Oct 12 2012 03:07 AM | Updated as of Oct 12 2012 09:57 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The uproar over the inclusion of the libel provision in the controversial Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act has led to a flurry of bills filed at the Senate seeking to decriminalize libel.

Nine bills seeking to amend the Revised Penal Code to remove the penalty of imprisonment for individuals found to have committed libel were filed by the senators.

Of the number, four were filed within two days of resumption of Congress by Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, Loren Legarda, Pia Cayetano and Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano. Sotto eventually withdrew his bill after hearing President Aquino’s initial stand supporting the cybercrime law in its entirety.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan also filed a bill last July which he said was consistent with the constitutional provision that prohibits the passage of any law that would curtail the freedom of speech, expression, and of the press.

His proposal sought the repeal of the libel provision in the Revised Penal Code. Members of media, the most affected by libel, would be required to police their own ranks once libel is decriminalized.

There were actually three bills filed in 2010 for the same purpose, the first by Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, followed by Sen. Edgardo Angara and Francis Escudero.

Of the nine bills filed before the Senate, only two – Angara’s Senate Bill 2053 and Estrada’s SB 683 – retained libel as a punishable act but only through fines or a civil suit.

Angara, the principal author and sponsor of the cybercrime law, said libel must still be punished but not with imprisonment.

He argued that the libel provision in the cybercrime law must be retained until such time that a law decriminalizing or repealing libel is passed. He said individuals must be protected from malicious imputations, although the penalty of imprisonment is not commensurate to the act being penalized.

Sen. Pia Cayetano said the right to free speech through writing and similar means should be upheld without fear or threat of incarceration or restraint of liberty.

However, she said any person who violates one’s right to privacy, dignity and peace of mind could still be held civilly liable.

For his part, Sen. Alan Cayetano said “there is a need to repeal the criminal defamation laws because the present rules create a chilling effect on the community.””

“We need to balance the need to promote the right of freedom of expression and the government’s duty to hold accountable those who abuse it,” he said.

Meanwhile, President Aquino was urged yesterday to certify as urgent the proposed amendments to the controversial RA 10175 to expedite its approval at the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said lawmakers could take advantage of the 120-day period during which the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court (SC) would be in effect to approve the amendments.

“The Supreme Court has already validated what the court of public opinion has consistently been saying, that the Cybercrime Prevention Act is inherently flawed. We should make use of the TRO and the final months of the 15th Congress to pass amendments to this law to ensure the rights and freedom of Filipinos online,” he said.

Bello filed Bill 6630 which seeks to amend the law against cybercrime by repealing the “haphazard” provisions on libel, and requiring a court warrant prior to seizure, disclosure or effecting restricted access to data readily available on the Internet.

“We call on President Aquino to certify Bill 6630 as urgent to immediately fix the mistakes of the law, respond to popular clamor and make amends for this tragic lapse. Malacañang should send a strong signal that it is listening to the people,” he said.

The lawmaker said Aquino should move quickly otherwise, “his name would be associated with that of Sen. Tito Sotto as an enemy of freedom of speech.” “This will be unfortunate since we believe the President made a mistake in signing the bill and did not intend to legitimize Senator Sotto’s controversial insertion of the libel provision,” he said.

He said the administration should not fear the freedom that the Internet offers.

“Instead, it should celebrate the Internet as the great equalizer that allows ordinary Filipinos to participate in the debate and discourse alongside the politically influential and wealthy,” he added.

As far as the House leadership is concerned, proposed amendments to the anti-cybercrime law are not a priority.

What’s on top of the chamber’s agenda is the final approval next week of the proposed P2-trillion 2013 national budget.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has said he was in favor of giving the law a chance to work, while Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile called for an end to the “noisy and divisive” debates as the High Court is currently studying its contentious provisions.

Enrile said lawmakers and the general public should work together in “polishing the law for the general good.”

“The heated debates and even street marches that happened prior to the Supreme Court’s issuance of the TRO last Tuesday demonstrate the vibrancy of our democratic system of government,” Enrile said. “Once again, the Supreme Court has demonstrated its wisdom.”

He lauded the SC justices for their decision “in protecting and preserving our fundamental right to free speech and expression.” Enrile also hailed Malacañang for allowing the public to air their concerns on the law without dispersing any protest rally.

UN intervention sought

Rights group Karapatan has sought the intervention of the United Nations on the issue of the cybercrime act, while an international organization has expressed support in the fight for the repeal of the controversial law.

Through Special Rapporteurs Frank Lee and Margaret Sekaggya, Karapatan asked the UN’s help in promoting and protecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and in addressing the situation of human-rights defenders, respectively.