Filipino netizens on edge as online libel criminalized under RA 10175 (the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012)

The Philippine Supreme Court reportedly upheld the libel provisions of Republic Act 10175 or the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012” which Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III signed into law in 2012. As expected, online hysterics have erupted over Philippine social media space with many online “activists” expressing loud indignation over what they perceive to be the “end of online freedom of expression” in the Philippines.

Filipino communists are the least credible of Internet freedom 'activists'.
Filipino communists are the least credible of Internet freedom ‘activists’.
Notable among these hysterical “activists” are Maoist activists like Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares who insists that “No one should go to prison just for expressing oneself, especially on the Internet, where people express their frustration with government.” Ironic, considering that the sort of communist regimes that groups like theirs aspire to establish in the Philippines are renowned for their utter lack of tolerance for dissent.

Indeed, many amongst the noisy crowd that now denounce this law have themselves been staunch supporters of its chief signatory, and likely its biggest beneficiary President BS Aquino himself. Recall that Aquino has many times expressed his presidential disdain for criticism.

It is difficult to harbour any hope for the Philippines when both the Establishment and the “activists” who supposedly exist to keep it honest are both made up of morons. Stepping back from all that noise, we will find that a few nuggets of wisdom in the Supreme Court ruling that lends some bases for a more sober regard for the issues at the core of this circus…

The court noted that “online libel is admittedly not a new crime but one already punished under Article 353 (which defines libel in the RPC); Section 4(c)(4) (or online libel) merely establishes the use of a computer as another means of publication. For this reason, charging the offender under both laws would be a violation of the guarantee against double jeopardy under Article III Section 27 of the 1987 Constitution,” said the statement released to the media.

Online libel champion: Maria Ressa
Online libel champion: Maria Ressa
In short libel has always been a crime. In fact, no less than God’s Gift to Philippine Journalism herself, the venerable Maria Ressa, CEO of “social news network” Rappler.com considers libel an essential part of the awesome social media arsenal she packs. Back in 2012, blogger Jaime Oscar Salazar who goes by the handle @randomsalt on Twitter highlighted a slip made by Ressa in the midst of a simmering exchange with another blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago that reveals the kernel in a disturbing disjoint between the top-honcho “thought leader” and what her “social news network” supposedly stands for. Salazar’s January 2012 article Ressa’s reckless ‘rappling’ (Updated) provides an account of Ressa’s seeming quickness to the draw when it comes to invoking the “L” word when slighted…

Blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago had earlier published “Going to the dogs”, in which she stated her opinion on the discussion generated by a heated dispute between Rappler and the University of Santo Tomas (UST)–a dispute that was caused by a controversial story written by Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug. Over the course of the post, Santiago raised what I believe to be important questions regarding the brave new world of online media and the directions that public discourse on such media needs–and has yet–to take. When said post was brought to Ressa’s attention via a Twitter update, however, Ressa did not only take exception to Santiago’s view that Rappler revealed a pro-administration bias by featuring the recently launched, meme-friendly tourism campaign, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” without investigating its costs, among others. In addition, Ressa pulled rank as a professional journalist and proceeded to imply that Santiago was guilty of libel: reckless moves that are utterly injurious to the digital citizenship that Ressa purports to be a passionate advocate of.

Salazar’s indictment of Ressa’s curious behaviour was short and sweet…

Surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that, in these islands, libel has all too often been used as a weapon with which to harass media workers…

So there you go. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi may as well have been addressing the Philippine National “Debate” when he asked his now famous rhetorical question:

Who is more foolish, the fool, or the one who follows him?

But the real question in most people’s minds now that RA 10175 has regrown its teeth is “Who is gonna be sued first?” We can start placing our bests now, and here is my Top Three most vulnerable targets:

* * *

(1) The Professional Heckler

Considering Filipinos’ renowned cognitive challenges when it comes to getting satire, the “award”-winning political satirist known as “The Professional Heckler” who in his Twitter account describes himself as “A humor blogger from the Philippines” may be in trouble. For that matter, just being “from the Philippines” puts him squarely within the libel kill zone.

His In Memoriam article on the “demise” of Senator Tito Sotto’s “common sense” as expressed in the following mock epitaph which opens the article, may be funny. But some powerful folk may not be in the mood for a bit of a laugh…

The People of the Philippines deeply regret
to announce the not-so-shocking demise
of Senator Vicente ‘Tito’ Sotto III’s
COMMON SENSE last August 29.

On September 5, 2012, it died yet again making
it ‘double dead’ — botcha sotto speak.

The lawmaker’s common sense is survived by his
22 fellow senators who opted to keep mum
on the issue of plagiarism.

In lieu of flowers or prayers,
the public is requested to just remain
vigilant and critical.

Interment was never announced.
It just happened.

Considering how I was crowned “one of the most enthusiastic hecklers of the politically-passionate” by no less than the Noted One himself way back in September 2006, I sympathise with The Professional Heckler. His blog goes as far back as April, 2007 so I count him as one who wields equal claim to the title.

In any case, Professional Heckler may have other more pressing things to worry about. The embattled Senator Sotto reportedly said that “the new law against cybercrime may be used to penalize those who make defamatory statements online.”

(2) Raissa Robles

The self-described “investigative journalist” has quite a dossier of journalistic infamy in our archives. Robles was instrumental to the success of the whole trial-by-media fiasco that was the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona. Her “contribution” to this “noble” endeavour was a full-court-press on Corona and his wife Cristina Corona that stood upon three questionable premises:

(1) Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) made it a point to appoint Mrs Corona to the Board of Directors of John Hay Management Corporation (JHMC) in 2001.

(2) There was, supposedly, a “possible conflict of interest” in an SC justice being married to a Board member of the JHMC both of whom were appointed by GMA to those positions.

(3) Mr Corona sat in the SC as a justice courtesy of GMA’s “reward” and Mrs Corona enjoyed a plum Board position in the JHMC over the rest of the period of GMA’s cling-on presidency.

Robles also mounted a “crowdsourcing” effort to supposedly get to the bottom of the Coronas’ allegedly vast property holdings in the United States by encouraging her community of readers to post “evidence” to prove this allegation on the comment sections of her blog.

(3) Magtanggol de la Cruz and Carmela Fonbuena of Rappler.com

Impeached on trumped-up charges using flawed evidence
Impeached on trumped-up charges using flawed evidence
One of the cornerstones of the case against Corona during his impeachment trial was the existence of alleged foreign currency accounts to his name. On account of the Philippines’ bank secrecy laws, those accounts and the cash balances within them were at the time legally invisible to the media. Yet in a series of Rappler.com news “reports”, de la Cruz and Fonbuena revealed not only the amount of money kept in these accounts but also the account number of one of them.

Rappler.com itself has a track record of erroneous “news” reporting. The most recent instance of this sloppy journalism was highlighted by blogger Paul Farol who cited Voltaire Tupaz’s and Judy Pasimio’s reports on the gunning down of tribal leader Timuay Lucenio Manda’s son Jordan in early September. “Manda was ambushed and shot at by several men while he was riding a motorcycle with his son, who he was bringing to school in Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur. Manda survived the shooting, but his son was instantly killed.”

Not one but two Rappler.com “reports” erroneously cast Manda as harbouring an absolute “anti-mining” position — an allegation denied by Manda himself in a subsequent press statement.

* * *

Note that for an allegation of libel to hold water, the following elements need to be present: “(a) imputation of a discreditable act or condition to another; (b) publication of the imputation; (c) identity of the person defamed; and, (d) existence of malice.” [Daez v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 47971, 31 October 1990, 191 SCRA 61, 67].

For most Filipinos, on the other hand, what is really important are final clarifications on any criminal liability to do with responding or reacting to online content they receive or come across over the course of using various digital content accessing tools and applications but had not necessarily authored themselves…

The SC ruled that imposition of cyber libel on the “original author of the post” is constitutional, but clarified the same is unconstitutional insofar as it penalizes those who simply receive the post and react to it.

This means only the source of a malicious e-mail, post on social media like Facebook or any website, tweet on Twitter can be held liable under RA 10175.

It was not, however, clarified whether forwarding, commenting, sharing or retweeting the item could be considered a crime under the law.

Big brother is watching!
Big brother is watching!

The central issue, then, is how Philippine Law henceforth defines the act of “reacting” to a purported libelous post. More precise definitions around that term are therefore needed to guide the actions of “netizens” once the full force of Philippine authorities get behind RA 10175. From a practical perspective Department of Justice (DOJ) Assistant Secretary Geronimo Sy reportedly says that charging people who forward, share, comment, like, or retweet libelous content may be “statistically impossible to charge”…

“Ang basehan diyan, ang basic analysis lang, the Supereme Court is also a practical court eh. Kasi the way it is, kung nag-like ka, 100, kung ni-retweet mo, 1000—it is statistically impossible to charge them all. So ang direction ng Korte Suprema, ‘yung original author lang kung saan nagbunga at nagsanhi ang libel o paninira ‘yun lang ‘yung magiging responasble. Di na kasama ‘yung mga nag-like o nag-share,” he said.

Translated: “The Supreme Court is also a practical court. A hundred people may ‘like’ something and a thousand people may retweet it. It is statistically impossible to charge them all. So the direction of the SC is to go after the original author — wherever libelous orn defamatory content orginates will be held responsible. Not covered by this responsibility are those who ‘liked’ or shared said content.”

We can rest assured for now. But stay tuned just the same.

Abangan ang susunod na kabanata…

[Image of “Are you feeling lucky” meme courtesy The Digital Drivetrain.]

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Post Author: benign0

benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.