Sotto: E-libel verdict ‘vindicates’ me

The senator, who drew flak for this provision in the anti-cybercrime law, asks: How can celebrities seek redress after having sex videos released without their consent?

'YES, VINDICATED.' Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III says the Supreme Court ruling on the cybercrime law shows that online libel is necessary.

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The senator who drew flak for proposing the inclusion of online libel in the anti-cybercrime law welcomed the Supreme Court decision upholding the provision.

Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said the High Court’s ruling declaring constitutional most provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 showed that online libel is necessary.

“I am glad that the Supreme Court sees it the way that Congress [sees] it but, somehow, I am bewildered that it had to take the Supreme Court to tell people that libel is libel,” Sotto told reporters on Tuesday, February 18.

“Hindi magandang maninira ka ng kapwa mo. ‘Yun lang ang punto na dapat makasama sa cybercrime law ‘yun. Talaga namang bawal ‘yun eh,” he added. (It’s not good to destroy others’ reputations. That’s the whole point why it was included in the cybercrime law. That is really prohibited.)

Watch his explanation here:

The court decided on Tuesday that online libel is constitutional but does not hold liable recipients of the libelous post or netizens who react to it.

On Jan 24, 2012, Sotto moved for the inclusion of libel as an amendment to the cybercrime law. The senator said he asked how celebrities like Katrina Halili could seek redress after being victims of the release of sex videos without their consent. (READ: The road to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012)

The senator said the law’s author, former Senator Edgardo Angara, said libel was the answer. “So I said, ‘Don’t you think we should include libel in the cybercrime law?’”

When the law was passed, some netizens said Sotto only wanted to get back at those who criticized him for plagiarizing the works of online writers in his speeches against the reproductive health (RH) law.

Sotto said the allegations were malicious. “I do not need that law to sue them. Besides, those are silly accusations. Hindi na dapat patulan (We need not respond). Now, it is best for the people who are affected online will find redress in the cybercrime law.”

He also stressed: “Let me be very clear also: most netizens are responsible. There are just [a] few malicious bad eggs who are afraid of the cybercrime act.”

The lone senator who opposed the bill, Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, was not available for comment after getting into a heated exchange with Senator Jinggoy Estrada over the pork barrel scam. 

‘Decriminalize libel’

Not all lawmakers shared Sotto’s view. Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares said his group was “very disappointed” with the ruling on online libel. He said he will file a motion for reconsideration.

“It is now prohibited for Filipinos to voice their disgust with government, Meralco, traffic or what-not through the Internet. It is now prohibited to tweet or post when you are mad or want to criticize government. This is the meaning of the SC ruling,” Colmenares said.

Akbayan Representative Barry Gutierrez called online libel “a dangerous limitation” to the right to speech and expression. 

“Internet use is a tool that enables and advances the full expression of the freedom of speech and expression; and the provision upheld by the Court constitutes a dangerous move towards a more restrictive regime governing the online exchange of views and ideas,” Gutierrez said.

ACT Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio wants to repeal the provision on online libel. 

Yet Senators Francis Escudero and Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara said there is no need to appeal the decision or repeal the law. As then Aurora congressman, Angara was one of the authors of a version of the cybercrime bill while his father was the author in the Senate.

Instead, Escudero and Angara said Congress’ next move should be to decriminalize libel, meaning remove the prison penalty. Under the Revised Penal Code, people found guilty of libel will be fined and imprisoned for 6 months for every count of libel committed. 

Escudero and Angara filed bills to decriminalize libel even before the passage of the cybercrime law.

“The liability for libel should be just civil. We should remove criminal liability,” Escudero said.

Angara said decriminalizing libel is consistent with the “trend worldwide.” International groups like the United Nations Human Rights Council urged the Philippines to decriminalize libel, saying the prison penalty is excessive and violates freedom of expression.

Needed to fight cybersex dens  

Angara and Escudero also said that the release of the Supreme Court decision was timely, after news reports about cyberpornography and the arrest of criminals running cybersex dens.

“With more blatant violations with the cybersex dens, cyberpornographers, I think it’s time to run after them,” Angara said.

Escudero also said that the government will find the cybercrime law useful. “Now, there are many cybersex dens that the government is busting. A stronger law is needed to avoid, stop, and punish those who are doing this to our countrymen, especially children.”

The senator was referring to reports that the live streaming of child sex abuse in the Philippines to foreign viewers became a cottage industry.

‘No safeguard needed’

Angara said Congress must review the implications of the ruling, and the negative reactions to the law.

“Given the uproar over the online libel provision from the media, from the online community, from the blogging community, maybe we should study this. Maybe self-regulation is sufficient,” Angara said.

He added that Congress must check if there is a “legal vacuum” after the High Court struck down the provision allowing the justice department to remove content without a court warrant, and the provision on the real-time collection of traffic data.

Escudero said netizens no longer need safeguards because those two were the only objectionable provisions of the law.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano though said that Congress must repeal the law if the “interpretation is too tight.”

“Our libel laws cannot be strict because it will quell the freedom of speech and creativity. People on Internet are used to saying anything. That’s very different from news, which has to be backed up by facts.” – 

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