Much debate online and offline has been going on about the recent Cybercrime Prevention Act signed into law by the President Aquino on Sept 12. The law, also known as RA 10175 took effect some two days ago.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the technalities of legal writing and such, but here’s a layman’s post on how a layman understands this issue.

The most controversial provision seems to be the one on libel which falls under Chapter 2 (Punishable Acts) Section 4 in Content-related Offenses. It says,

Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

Well, I don’t really know, much less remember, what “Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code” says. So here’s how it goes, apparently:

 Art. 355. Libel means by writings or similar means. — A libel committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means…

But hold on, that doesn’t really define what “libel” is, does it? Two articles up of the above quote, we see a definition of libel:

Art. 353. Definition of libel. — A libel is public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.

Oops, sorry for those chunks of quotes – just had to set it right. Our Media Law class taught me to get the definitions straight first. Anyway, back to our discussion.

So, as I understand it, libel is a malicious accusation discrediting someone. For it to be “libel”, it has to be publicized as well.  Now, RA 10175 has redefined libel to encompass acts “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future” aside from “by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means”.

My question is, are tweets, Facebook messages, comments, blogs and the considered publications? Well, we “publish” them in the online world so they may very well be. However, we also consider them facets of our expression, and thus covered by “freedom of expression” as promised to us by our Philippine Constitution. Will the law then abridge this freedom by meddling into our social networking account activities, for example?

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility cites how libel has been used against journalists. In a statement against the Act, CMFR says,

Libel as a criminal offense has been used by past administrations as well as local officials today to harass and intimidate journalists. The outstanding example of its use against journalists was the filing by Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo of 11 libel suits against 46 journalists during the disputed presidency of his wife Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. And yet Congress has through the decades ignored the demand from journalists and human rights groups for the decriminalization of libel.

Furthermore, the same CMFR statement says that the Act “can signal the opening of the floodgates of Internet regulation that will affect Filipino netizens” and that “[i]t is a distinct possibility to which journalists and bloggers, ordinary citizen and anyone committed to free expression through whatever medium, should be alert, and must be prepared to combat.”

Journalists have been known to call legislators’ attention to decriminalize libel, arguing that the profession has ethical standards to guide them and that responsibility and right restraint should come from the people of the profession themselves rather than government regulation. With the passage of this Act, journalists will not be the only ones affected but everyone who uses the internet to share opinion as well – thus meriting the outcry of netizens who changed their profile pictures to black to express disapproval.

However, might this be just netizens overacting to a law that serves a good purpose – it has other provisions aside from the one on libel, after all – ? This reaction, however, might seem logical when taken into perspective. Libel has indeed been used to silence the press.

A current law student and former Journalism classmate, Johanna Perez in a blog post, however, encourages us to “have a little faith in our criminal justice system.” She says that “[j]ust because you write something libelous, it does not mean that you are an instant criminal. A criminal is someone who has been tried and convicted by our courts. To put it bluntly, you are only a criminal if you get caught and convicted.” She also writes how people protesting the Act calling themselves “cybercriminals” aren’t really “cybercriminals” yet but “cyber bullies”.

Although I ended up having more questions than answers in the course of my writing this post, I realized that the Cybercrime Prevention Act does address pertinent issues. The law, in itself, seems to be geared towards good causes. However, due to the Filipinos’ past experiences dealing with freedom curtailment and the laws being circumvented to curtail basic rights, they have reacted violently. Maybe it’s how the law will be implemented (as it is prone to abuse) that scares us more than the law itself.

Read RA 10175 here and the Book 2 of the Revised Penal Code here.