cyber libel in the Philippines

Canada, others urge Marcos gov’t to decriminalize libel, ensure press freedom in PH

Jodesz Gavilan

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Canada, others urge Marcos gov’t to decriminalize libel, ensure press freedom in PH
The Philippines should decriminalize libel and cyber libel in favor of civil proceedings, says Canada

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Protection for journalists takes center stage at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the United Nations as several countries urged the Marcos administration to decriminalize libel and cyber libel in the Philippines.

The UPR is a process where UN Human Rights Council and other UN member-states assess and give recommendations to better address the human rights record of a country. The Philippines recently underwent this process on November 14 in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the UPR, Canada recommended that the Philippine government “take appropriate steps to amend the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act in order to decriminalize libel and cyber libel, in favor of civil proceedings.”

The United States, meanwhile, said the Philippine government should “review and revise laws and regulations that unduly restrict or inhibit freedom of expression and independent media,” citing also the Revised Penal Code, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 20212, as well as section 9 of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

Several other countries – including Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy, among others – called on the Marcos administration to cease attacks and harassment on journalists and take appropriate actions to ensure media freedom in the Philippines.

Data from the Department of Justice show that at least 1,159 cyber libel cases were filed in court between 2012 and November 9, 2022. Out of this number, 1,198 were dismissed and 18 led to convictions.

Nobel Laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Rey Santos Jr were convicted of cyber libel in 2020 by the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46. The case, which tested the Philippines’ controversial cybercrime law, was filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng and came as the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte continued its attacks on Rappler and other media organizations.

The Court of Appeals denied Ressa and Santos’ motion for reconsideration in October 2022.

Condemning the decision, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan urged the government to bring an end to attacks against the media.

“The criminalization of journalists for libel impedes public interest reporting and is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression,” she said in July. “Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed.”

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UN HRC member-states also urged the Marcos administration to address extrajudicial killings left under the Duterte regime, cease red-tagging, and push forward legislation and measures that can protect civil society members, including the long-awaited Human Rights Defenders Protection Act.

Speaking in the aftermath of the UPR, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said the government is accepting recommendations, including those that call for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists. He insisted that the Philippines is a “vibrant democracy for freedom of expression.”

“There is no state policy to attack, harass, and intimidate human rights defenders [including media],” he told the UN HRC in a speech on November 16. “Claims of a sinking civic space and media space are unfounded.”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJP) documented at least 197 media killings since 1986, with two killed since the beginning of the Marcos administration in June this year.

Meanwhile, rights group Karapatan documented 427 incidents of killings and at least 537 recorded incidents of frustrated killings between July 2016 and December 2021. At least 1,161 activists have been arrested and detained over the past six years. –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.