Internet libel in PH may lead to 12 years in prison

by Jojo Malig,

Posted at Sep 19 2012 11:02 PM | Updated as of Sep 20 2012 11:15 AM

Lawsuit poised against Republic Act 10175

MANILA, Philippines - A person found guilty of libelous comments on the Internet could spend up to 12 years in prison with no possibility of parole, a lawyer warned Wednesday.

Libel committed on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online content was made a more serious crime compared to printed libel because of to the newly approved anti-cybercrimes law or Republic Act 10175, according to Atty. Harry Roque, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Philippines.

"Three times longer imprisonment. Facebook and Twitter may lead to 12 years in jail," he said.  "Imprisonment for e-libel: 6 years and 1 day up to 12 years."

"Conviction for e-libel now comes with a definite prison term. Increased prison term provided by new law makes convicts ineligible for parole," he explained.

In comparison, he said the penalty for printed libel set by Revised Penal Code is only 6 months and one day to 4 years and 2 months.

Roque, who is also director of the Institute of International Legal Studies of the UP Law Center, told that they will file a lawsuit to have the libel provision of the anti-cybercrimes law be declared unconstitutional.

Article 3, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution 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."

Threat to Constitutional freedoms

Atty. James Mark Terry Ridon, president and general counsel, of the Kabataan partylist group, also questioned the libel provision of RA 10175.

"While RA No. 10175 makes clear mention of libel related to Art. 355 of the Revised Penal Code and committed through computer systems (Sec. 4(c)4), there is no mention in the law of the penalty to be imposed on such offense," Ridon said in a statement. "It is an elementary rule in criminal law that there can be no crime can be committed, nor punishment imposed without a pre-existing penal law."

"Contingent upon the existence of a penal law is the definition of the particular penalty imposable on the criminal offense defined," he added. "In the Chapter on Penalties in RA No. 10175, no express mention is made on the specific penalty imposable on libel as defined in the law."

"What is most bothersome to civil libertarians and online writers is the catch-all provision under Section 6, in which all offenses defined under the Revised Penal Code and special laws committed through information and communications technologies shall be imposed with a penalty one degree higher than that provided in the Code and special laws," he said.

"Under this provision, the use of information and communications technologies to commit crimes under the RPC and special laws is considered a special aggravating circumstance, which does not only increase the penalty to its maximum period as other special aggravating circumstances, but increases the penalty one degree higher, akin to a qualifying aggravating circumstance," he added, echoing Roque's analysis on how long a person found guilty of online libel could be imprisoned.

"As information and communications technologies had been vaguely defined in the law, it can be assumed that such ICT includes all platforms by which information is communicated online – blogs, websites, social networking sites," Ridon said. "Thus, all content in such platforms which may contain libelous material may now be subject to a criminal suit one degree higher than the penalty imposed on libel under the RPC."

"This is a path to the wrong direction at a time when the Supreme Court had already made clear steps towards the decriminalization of libel, by making preferences on fines instead of prison terms," he added. "By imposing a penalty one degree higher than what had been stated in the RPC on libel, longer prison terms are guaranteed for persons found to have published or posted material containing libelous remarks online."

"The new law is thus a threat to the constitutional freedoms of the press and expression," he said.

Due process concerns

Ridon also raised concerns that people's right to due process could be violated by other provisions of RA No. 10175 that will allow law enforcement agencies to search, seize, and destroy computer data with or without court warrants.

Chapter IV Section 12 of RA 10175 allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to collect traffic data from Internet users even without a court warrant.

This would violate Section 3(1) of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that states, “The privacy of communication and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise as prescribed by law."

The US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also warned Wednesday that the new law threatens free speech.

The EFF said the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has already determined that the criminal sanctions imposed on those accused of libel in the Philippines violate Article 19, paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"Also troubling is the fact that, in the Philippines, libel cases are determined not on the basis of what the writer of the alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean, leaving room for interpretation," EFF official Jillian York said.

"EFF is gravely concerned about the implications of the libel provision in the Cybercrime Act and supports local journalists and free expression advocates in opposing it," she added.