MANILA, Philippines – When the Philippine Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Rappler CEO and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, it also extended the shelf life or prescription period of cyber libel to 15 years, which, if sustained, would mean that a person can be sued for cyber libel for something published 15 years back.
The trial court in Manila that convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. in June 2020 ruled that cyber libel’s prescription period was 12 years, a period that already troubled free speech advocates then, and which prompted a bill filed at the Lower House to make it clear that cyber libel’s shelf life is only one year.
With a different interpretation from the appellate court that extends it to 15 years, the young cyber libel law might be in for another constitutional battle in the High Court.
International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, one of Ressa’s international counsels, said in a statement Tuesday, July 12: “I hope that the Philippines Supreme Court will now set things right – and restore the country’s constitutional commitment to freedom of speech.”
How did this happen?
Ordinary libel in the revised penal code prescribes in one year, meaning, one can only be sued within a year of publication of the questioned content. But the complainant against Santos’ May 2012 article, Wilfredo Keng, brought on the suit in October 2017, or five years after. Even when Rappler corrected a typo in February 2014, which the Court of Appeals considers a new offense, Keng would have only had the right to sue until February 2015. This is why the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) legal division initially threw out this suit.
But the legal division of the bureau was overruled by its leaders, and the complaint was transmitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors who found Act 3326. Cyber libel under the young and hotly-contested Cybercrime Law or RA 10175 did not have an explicit prescription period, but it did say that cyber libel should have a penalty one degree higher. That means from prision correccional, it would be prision mayor which ranges from six to 12 years in prison.
The DOJ prosecutors then took out the pre-war Act 3326, which says that crimes under special laws which are punished by prison time six years or more should prescribe in 12 years. Rappler’s lawyer, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group, consistently brought up the fact that the Supreme Court, in ruling on the constitutionality of the cybercrime law, said that because cyber libel is not a new crime, it should follow ordinary libel’s one-year shelf life. But Judge Rainelda Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 agreed with the DOJ.
What did the Court of Appeals do?
Here, the Court of Appeals Fourth Division used a different basis. They said that according to Article 25 of the Revised Penal Code, prision mayor is considered an afflictive penalty. And according to Article 90 of the Revised Penal Code, crimes with afflictive penalties prescribe in 15 years. (Note, Article 90 is the provision that spells out that ordinary libel prescribes in one year.)
CA Justices Associate Justices Roberto Quiroz, Ramon Bato, and Germano Francisco Legaspi cited a division ruling of the Supreme Court from 2018, title case G.R. No. 240310, which ruled the same.
Neither Ressa nor Santos have to go to jail while they exhaust their remedies, the Supreme Court being the last stop.
What’s the battle at the SC?
Rappler earlier said it welcomes the chance to go to the Supreme Court and question the constitutionality of cyber libel once more, including the long-standing debate to decriminalize it, which the High Court had been doing for a few cases.
“I hope that the new Marcos administration will show the world that it is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and allow a free press,” said Clooney.
Clooney’s co-counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC said “the world is watching how the new President responds.”
“We call on the international community to condemn this ruling in the strongest terms, and to make clear to the new administration the vital importance of press freedom, human rights and the rule of law,” said Gallagher. – Rappler.com
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