Aquino: Why not use cybercrime law to go after trolls, purveyors of fake news?

Nikko Dizon
Aquino: Why not use cybercrime law to go after trolls, purveyors of fake news?

'Parang pilit na pilit,' former President Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III says of the cyber libel conviction of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer, Rey Santos, Jr

MANILA, Philippines –  Journalists are convicted of cyber libel, yet labor official Mocha Uson, known for her disinformation campaigns, was not made accountable under Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. 

This thought crossed former President Benigno Aquino III’s mind after reading the court decision that found Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr guilty of cyber libel on Monday, June 15.

Si Mocha Uson, nung nag-post tungkol sa mga PPEs, which turned out to be fake news, ang sabi ‘honest mistake.’ Kinuha din nya sa Star yung picture. Hanggang dun na lang? Yung isa, convicted,” Aquino told Rappler by phone on Tuesday, June 16.

(When Mocha Uson posted about PPEs, which turned out to be fake news, she said it was an honest mistake and it was left at that. She also got the photo from Star. And that’s it? But Maria was convincted?)

He added: “It’s not clear to me how the judge was able to reach the conclusion that there was malice [intended] in the [Rappler] story.”

It was in September 2012 that Aquino signed the controversial cybercrime law that was used by businessman Wilfredo Keng in his cyber libel suit against Rappler over a May 2012 article.

Aquino said that “perhaps the enforcement of the law must focus on the purveyors of fake news who do not attempt to get the other side.”

“It was in this context that this law was signed,” he said. “We believe that this is a law that can be used to go after trolls who make posts without basis.”

Bakit hindi sila ang habulin, sila na may malice at repetitive ang action? Bakit hindi mas unahin yun?” Aquino added.

(Why don’t authorities go after them? Those with malice and who repeat their actions? Why don’t authorities go after them first?)”

Aquino wanted to read the decision first before giving a statement on Ressa and Santos’ conviction by Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa.

Of the ruling, the former president said: “Parang pilit na pilit (It seemed like a forced decision).”

Among the things in the court decision that puzzled Aquino was that the law was applied retroactively on the basis of its supposed “re-publication” in 2014, when the article was updated because of a corrected typo error. 

(READ: VERDICT PRIMER: Legal and factual issues in Rappler, Maria Ressa cyber libel case)

“The decision said that the article [being] re-published was the proof of malice. Medyo pilit na yun (It seemed forced),” Aquino said, adding: “Re-publication as a test of malice is too novel.”

He also said that it struck him that Ressa’s involvement in the article was not clearly demonstrated in the case.

In May 2012, Rappler published an article about how the late former chief justice Renato Corona was using SUVs of “controversial businessmen,” one of them being Keng. The same article carried Keng’s denial, in a phone interview with Santos, that he owned an SUV used by Corona.

Rappler also cited a story published by the Philippine Star in 2002 which mentioned that Keng had also been accused of “smuggling fake cigarettes and granting special investors residence visas to Chinese nationals for a fee,” which Keng had denied in the article.

In his libel suit, Keng disputed parts of the article that linked him to involvement in illegal activities, namely human trafficking and drug smuggling, citing an intelligence report.

The cybercrime law penalizes crimes aided by technology and the use of computers such as online pornography, identity theft, forgery, fraud, cyber-squatting, and data interference, among others.

But the inclusion of cyber libel among the crimes led critics to petition the Supreme Court to declare this provision unconstitutional.

Cyber libel is the same offense as libel defined under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, but committed through a computer system. The High Tribunal, in 2014, ruled that cyber libel was constitutional.

Asked if he had any fears when he signed the law that the cyber libel provision could be misused to suppress press freedom and freedom of expression, Aquino replied: 

“Anything devised or invented by mankind can be misused or abused.” –

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.