MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – Senator Tito Sotto inserted in the last minute a libel clause in the anti-cybercrime law, according to Senate records and his chief of staff.
Journalist and blogger Raïssa Robles revealed that Sotto's chief of staff, Atty. Hector Villacorta, confirmed that his boss added libel as a "content-related offense" in Republic Act No. 10175 that was signed last week by President Benigno Aquino.
“I can verify that,” Villacorta told Robles.
He did not tell her why Sotto inserted the provision found in the law's Section 4-C(4), which declares that online libel is now considered a cybercrime that can be punished under the Revised Penal Code.
Sotto, who has received flak online for allegedly plagiarizing the work of several people, including US bloggers and even the late Senator Robert Kennedy, earlier warned his critics to be wary of the anti-cybercrime law.
He claimed that he was "cyberbullied" on the Internet.
"Ako na po yata ang kauna-unahang opisyal na naging biktima ng cyberbullying. Buti na lang mayroon na tayong batas na tinatalakay diyan," he said in a privilege speech against his critics online.
Robles also revealed that the original versions of the anti-cybercrime law, House Bill 5808 and Senate Bill 2796, did not mention either "libel" or "cyberbullying."
Sotto's insertion of libel into the proposed legislation also did not undergo congressional public hearing.
Senate records show that Sotto added the libel amendment on January 24, 2012 (see pages 12-13 on embedded Senate journal below).
Sotto specifically targetted users of social media websites.
"Senator Sotto stated that there are numerous abuses in technology, particularly the video and photo uploading and unnecessary write-ups and comments in social networking systems," the Senate journal said.
He then moved that the Senate end its period of individual amendments.
The proposed anti-cybercrime legislation was approved on second reading a few minutes later, with no objection.
The senators who approved the anti-cybercrime law proposal on third and final reading were Sotto, Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Gregorio Honasan II, Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, Pia Cayetano, Bong Revilla Jr., Jinggoy Ejercito-Estrada, Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Ralph Recto, and Manny Villar.
Only Senator Teofisto "TG" Guingona rejected the proposed measure.
The new anti-cybercrime law is set to be implemented next month, while its implementing rules and regulations will be released 90 days from September 12 when Aquino signed the bill into law.
Threat to freedom of speech
A lawyer, Argee Guevarra, has warned that the online libel clause could "kill" social media use in the country.
"Sa mga gumagamit ng Facebook at Twitter, ito’y kapangyarihan ng maliliit na mamamayan na hindi kayang magbayad ng espasyo sa media, itong libre ang gustong sugpuin ng cybercrime law" he said. "Para sa demokratikong pwersa, hindi nga ito (libel) kinokonsider na krimen. Ang mga pahayag sa Internet, maaari na ngayong usigin at hulihin. This is a step backward to democracy."
Media organizations have criticized the law's approval, particularly its libel provision that can send any outspoken netizen to jail.
Under the Revised Penal Code, people found guilty of libel can be fined and imprisoned for 6 months for every count of libel committed.
"The inclusion of libel among the crimes that may be committed with the use of computers poses a threat not only against the media and other communicators but anyone in the general public who has access to a computer and the Internet," the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said in a statement Tuesday.
"The Cybercrime Prevention Act actually broadens the scope of a libel law so antiquated and draconian that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) itself declared it excessive and called on the Philippine government to review the law with the end of decriminalizing libel," the NUJP added.
"The reason the Philippine press remains free is because Filipino journalists insist it remain so. We are certain bloggers, netizens and all those who value freedom of expression share these sentiments," the group said.
"The presence of decayed idea of libel in the crimes enlisted in the bill may use to attack not only the cyberpress members but also to the progressive netizens like activists and political bloggers," the Burgos Media Center said in a press statement.
"Through this law, the trapos can now easily file charges against critics by claiming that cyber journalist have threatened their life and property," the center added.
Decriminalization of libel
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said the passage of RA 10175 "suggests among other possibilities that both Congress and Mr. Aquino have chosen to ignore the 2011 declaration of the UNHRC that the Philippine libel law is excessive because it penalizes violators with imprisonment, contrary to the human rights protocols to which the Philippines is a signatory, and therefore must at least be reviewed towards decriminalizing libel."
Either that, or the authors of the bills, and [President Benigno] Aquino himself, are unfamiliar with both the UNHRC declaration, as well as with the long-standing demand to decriminalize libel in order to put an end to the use of the libel law to intimidate and silence journalists," the CMFR said.
"Apparently there is little hope that libel will ever be decriminalized, RA 10175 having in effect further strengthened it by widening its application," the center added.
The CMFR also warned that RA 10175 "can signal the opening of the floodgates of Internet regulation that will affect Filipino netizens, given the restrictive mindset of the country’s leaders."
"It is a distinct possibility to which journalists and bloggers, ordinary citizen and anyone committed to free expression through whatever medium, should be alert, and must be prepared to combat," it said.
Two separate bills have been filed in the upper and lower chambers of Congress to decriminalize libel.
These are House Bill 6391 introduced by Agham party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco; and Senate Bill 3244 filed by Senator Gringo Honasan.
The bills are still pending before committees in the lower House and the Senate.