Philippine Supreme Court Upholds Cyber Libel Law

cybercrimeFirst, the good news: The Philippine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the “takedown clause” of a proposed anti-cybercrime law that would allow authorities to restrict or remove suspicious websites and other questionable Internet content. It also struck down a provision on real-time collection of traffic data, that would have empowered the government to conduct mass surveillance without judicial approval.

But there’s also bad news: The Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of online libel. The court clarified that “online libel only applies to the original author or producer of libelous material. Receiving, responding to, or sharing libelous material online would not be covered by online libel.”

Under the new law, crimes that are already addressed in the country's penal code receive higher penalties in electronic form. Libel is among them.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act or Republic Act No. 10175 was signed in 2012 but was immediately challenged by media groups and citizens concerned about various provisions that would have undermined human rights and media freedom in the country. The law was described by many netizens as ‘cyber martial law.’ In response to a civil society petition, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order which prevented the government from implementing the law.

Human rights lawyer Harry Roque asserted that the new law constitutes an infringement on free speech:

The high court should not abdicate its duty to protect freedom of expression. No less than the U.N. Human Rights Committee has already declared that Philippine Criminal Libel Law is contrary to Freedom of Expression. The Court’s decision failing to declare libel as unconstitutional is therefore contrary to Human Rights Law.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the court ruling as “a half-inch forward but a century backward” in terms of advancing media freedom in the country:

By extending the reach of the antediluvian libel law into cyberspace, the Supreme Court has suddenly made a once infinite venue for expression into an arena of fear, a hunting ground for the petty and vindictive, the criminal and autocratic…

Journalist Inday Espina-Varona warned about the dangers of online libel laws:

…the problem with libel as a criminal offense is, it encourages reprisals even when a post is true, fair and motivated by the best intentions. A criminal case is always a cause for concern. You think warlords care about the effort you took to be fair and truthful?

The Supreme Court decision on the Cybercrime Law only makes citizen watchdogs vulnerable to people in power with the resources to harass voices of dissent.

Noemi L Dado, one of the petitioners, urged netizens to continue the fight to protect Internet freedom:

I am so disappointed at the SC decision on online libel. I welcome though, their decision on the unconstitutionality of the provisions such as the Take Down clause and the decision to strike down the real time gathering of information. The fight to protect our internet freedom and hashtags #notocybercrimelaw continue in social media.

The College Editors Guild accused the government of supporting the law in order to stifle citizen dissent:

Such laws are passed not in the interests of public safety or national security, but to defend the status quo’s own interests against public dissent. Defence and security become convenient justifications to chip away at democratic rights, bit by bit, when in reality a political system like our own ought to be defending the public – against itself.

The Department of Justice welcomed the ruling but also noted that numerous cybercrimes were committed in the past year and a half when the restraining order was in effect:

In the intervening period when the [restraining order] was in place, cybercrime in its many forms were continuing and even escalating. A clear legal framework is necessary to protect citizens and balance state duties. We will continue to recommend best practices to improve the law.

Netizens are using the Twitter hashtag #NonLibelousTweets to mock the court's ruling on the law.

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