ADVOCACY MINDANOW: Netizens, watch out!

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/24 February) – If you are in FACEBOOK or TWITTER or in the internet, you should sit up and look closely at the new law called Cybercrime Prevention Law (RA 10175) that punishes cyberspace libel.

Just to immediately clear the air at the outset, the original author of a libelous article or post is the only one held liable. Netizens who merely pass on or “share”, “like” or even make a “comment” of a libelous post or material is exempted or excluded from being penalized. Only the original author is answerable. However mark this: if in making a “comment”, you mention a new or additional derogatory information not found in the original posting, then you can be held liable for that as the original author of that new information.

For example, Pedro accuses Ana of being a mistress of Juan in a post. Pedro can be charged under the new law. Upon reading Pedro’s post, you can share or like or comment or affirm or even criticize Ana for being a mistress of Pedro. But if you write a comment saying: “Ana is also a mistress of Angelo” then you can be liable for that additional info on Ana’s being with another person Angelo. So watch out.

DECRIMINALIZE — As a consequence of this new law, there is a big debate now as to whether or not we should decriminalize libel as defined in both the old Revised Penal Code and as recently contained in RA 10175. “Decriminalizing” libel means removing imprisonment or the penal sanctions from our laws. It does not remove its civil liability so an offender can still be hailed to court by filing a civil case.

This was triggered by the recent ruling by the Supreme Court declaring in part as constitutional, the new cybercrime law that penalizes the original author with a maximum of 12 years imprisonment. This is much stiffer, by the way, than the penalty against journalists and mediamen under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines.

Those who support this argue that the penal sanctions are violative of our constitutional right to press freedom and stifles free speech and expression. It brings a chilling effect on ordinary citizens who are generally not aware of the nuances of criminal libel. Truth to tell, veteran newsmen and those in professional media do not anymore mind or feel any chilling effect or are perhaps already inured to this. Over the years, they have learned how to creatively write or say things that have the same critical impact but evading elements of libel to prevent prosecution. But not so with our internet users.

On the other hand, those who are against this move argue that this will make our press and the internet users more licentious and abusive and leaves the libeled citizenry without remedy or recourse.

But here is a distinction between netizens and journalists. In media, one who is defamed will have to submit one’s statement to the media for publication but cannot demand space to assure airing of that side. Whereas a blogger or a netizen can immediately give his/her side by also posting one’s own side in the public domain without asking anyone’s permission for space.

30 MILLION NETIZENS —- The fact that this matter is now catching the attention of millions using the internet is a good sign. The estimated 30 million Filipino netizens who are engaged in the so-called social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) are now rising up ( no, not in arms but in words) against the new law.

Curiously, it is only when the Supreme Court, issued its ruling declaring the new law constitutional that a big howl of protest came. Not too many apparently noticed this when it went through Congress and then approved by the Philippine president. We were all caught napping because we could have stopped this on its tracks upon its inception during congressional deliberations and committee hearings.

To belatedly block this in the Supreme Court invoking constitutional infirmity may be too late in the day, especially now that a decision has been rendered. The planned motion for consideration, which we should all support, may be futile at this time. It can be a bad law, done by bad-intentioned legislators but it can still be constitutional because it does not contravene any constitutional provision.

But the furor now over this may be a good vehicle or platform for the long desired plan of decriminalizing libel.

We definitely want to see this happen.

SELF-POLICING —- In print media involving members of the PHILIPPINE PRESS INSTITUTE ( PPI), there is an existing mechanism for redress against erring mediamen that is not known to many. The first line of redress for the maligned and the disciplining of the concerned erring media person is first left to the newspaper where the reporter or writer belongs. The editor or publisher or its designated “ombudsman” is given the first shot. Failing in that, the aggrieved can file a complaint before the PHILIPPINE PRESS COUNCIL which is composed of representatives from media and multi-sectoral groups like the academe, business, etc. An investigation is done and if there is culpability the press council can impose sanctions. The newspaper can even be directed to give the aggrieved party space to ventilate or publish his side if this were not done so at the outset. However, the press council can acquire jurisdiction over the complaint only upon the submission of a written waiver by the complainant that he will not resort to the courts for redress. This administrative remedy is not so much penal in character but giving the complaining person an opportunity to clear his name or give his side after being maligned publicly by a published material. It leaves to the independent press the task of policing its own ranks.

There is now an on-going effort at PPI to revitalize or organize locally – based press councils to make available this mechanism to the public. While PPI supports decriminalization of libel, it is committed to do its share in seeing to it that the public is amply protected from the abusive press. It will take parallel efforts in getting its media members capacitated to self-police effectively their own ranks.

Because an independent and free press is regarded as the “Fourth Estate” ( separate and distinct from the 3 traditional branches of government — the judiciary, legislative and executive), it should be left on its own to police and cleanse its own ranks of its own share of undesirables. Freedom and responsibility being co-existent, the press must do its part. But definitely, government and especially its officials who are at the receiving end of a free press, have no business interfering and playing policeman. That’s what press freedom is all about.

But here’s a reality check on this plan to decriminalize libel through congress. Do you sincerely think our legislators who have suffered the brunt of a freewheeling press have the patriotism — and appetite — to remove the penal sanction? Sorry, but I doubt it! So don’t bet on it. (Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW.)