Roll out red carpet for Internet users, senators told
The Philippines continues to violate an international treaty on freedom of expression with its libel laws, groups say

DECRIMINALIZE LIBEL. The Senate committee on science and technology holds its first hearing on proposed amendments to the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Senate PRIB photo

MANILA, Philippines – Groups opposed to online libel urged senators to consider a proposed measure that would repeal the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 which they believe violates an international treaty.

Gilbert Andres of  Media Defense Southeast Asia told the Senate committee on science and technology on Monday, March 3, that the Philippines continues to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was enforced in 1987.

“The inclusion of libel in Section 4 (4) of the cybercrime law is an outright defiance of the UN Human Rights Committee view in the case of Alexander Adonis vs. the Republic of the Philippines which was issued last October 2011,” said Andres, a resource person at the Senate hearing on proposed amendments to the anti-cybercrime law.

Adonis is a Bombo Radyo announcer who went to jail for libel for two years, which the UN Human Rights Committee viewed to be incompatible with Article 19 paragraph 3 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression, Andres said.

He said the UN committee, which is different from the UN Human Rights Council and monitors compliance with the ICCPR, believes that “the Philippines is under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations including reviewing the relevant libel legislation.”

“The HRC views are accepted as authoritative on the issue of a state party’s compliance with  their obligations under the ICCPR since the membership of this body consists of leading experts in human rights,” Andres said.

‘Red carpet’ for Internet users

Blogger Tonyo Cruz said that just as the hearing coincided with the 2014 Oscars awards, he hoped that senators would “roll out the red carpet for Internet freedom.”

Cruz also reminded the lawmakers that they too would be at a disadvantage with online libel, since they would have no parliamentary immunity in cyberspace.

“With the enactment of the cybercrime law, an adversarial Executive may unleash cyberlibel suits against any senator or congressman, and you would no longer to covered by parliamentary immunity,” he said.

Alwyn Alburo,  vice chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said the Supreme Court ruling nullifying some portions of the cybercrime law but upholding the constitutionality of online libel is “a half inch forward; a century backward.”

Pierre Tito Galla, co-founder of Democracy Net.PH, supported the proposed Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom (MCPIF) of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

“Our belief is that the MCPIF is the right path in addressing the different and diverse issues in cyberspace and cybersecurity. It is a holistic rights-anchored law that will consistently uphold our rights online and offline,” Galla said.

He said unlike the cybercrime law, which the proposed measure seeks to repeal, the MCPIF “upholds constitutional guarantees in cyberspace.”

IRR readied

Justice Assistant Secretary Geronimo Sy allayed fears raised during the hearing and gave his assurance that the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) on the cybercrime law being drafted by his department would be subject to online and offline consultations.

“We have already finished  the draft of the IRR. Next week we will start first our consultations….We will post it online and invite everybody to [comment] on it,” Sy said.

Sy said the IRR would have simple language that even highschool students can understand.

The DOJ official hoped that a “rationalized, simplified and protective” IRR would help the Philippines become the first Asean country to be a signatory to the International Convention on Cybercrime of the Council of Europe, the only binding international instrument on the subject.

Sy also allayed concerns about privacy, which Cruz had likened to the government entering his bedroom, through the cybercrime law.

“Be assured that the government would never enter your bedroom and do those things precisely because the Supreme Court, by its decision, has already swept away the sweeping provisions of the CPA,” he said.

Strike a balance

Sy said he appreciates the candor of the anti-online libel groups but this should be “balanced” with law enforcement in a country like the Philippines where “life is very cheap.”

“For a person to have the right to speech, he has to exist; he has to live first. In the Philippines, in the daily headlines are [people] being killed, slain. I think there should be equally pressing matters on the issue of [law] enforcement.  We cannot be all about free speech when the right to life is very fragile….In the Philippines, life is very cheap,” he said.

Sy said while it is good to raise questions about the country’s compliance with international treaties,”at the end of the day, it’s about the agent on the ground” and the implementation of the law.

On fears that the law would promote state surveillance of private citizens, Sy said that the government does not even have enough money to stock toilets in government buildings with toilet paper.

Decriminalize libel

In his remarks at the hearing, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, committee chair, reiterated his proposal to decriminalize libel.

“Any person who has been subjected to scurrilous and defamatory remarks which damage his reputation can initiate civil action for damages,” Recto said.

He also said that for politicians, being the subject of even “language most foul, goes with the territory.”

“A public official who complains about, say, a bad press is like a ship captain who complains about the sea. Besides, all public officials have resources and opportunities to rebut lies,” Recto said.

Senate President Franklin Drilon also supports the decriminalization of libel.

“We cannot say it is libelous if it is spoken on radio, or printed in print media and not libelous when it gets to the internet. The solution, and I endorse it, we must decriminalize libel in the Revised Penal Code,” Drilon said in an interview with reporters.

Other senators who support the decriminalization of libel are Senator Teofisto Guingona Jr, Senate Majority Leader Alan Cayetano, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, and Senator Francis Escudero.–

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