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Government defends cyberlaw

jardeleza-roqueIt was the government’s turn last Tuesday to defend the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza single handedly defended the law. The Justices grilled him for at least three and a half hours straight. Almost all of the questions of the magistrates focused on libel and Section 12 of the law, which authorizes law enforcement agents to gather or collect real-time data.

Justice Roberto Abad fired the opening salvo. He observed that while the government has argued that libel is not being penalized for the first time under the new law, Congress must still be presumed to have a purpose for including libel as a content-related offense under the new law. Justice Abad theorized that it must be to make it clear that defamatory statements in the Internet had to be expressly declared by Congress as now capable of being punished as libel. The

Sol-Gen countered that what Congress did was merely to provide publication in the Internet as a qualifying circumstance. He argued that cyber libel was the only offense under the new law that was not subject to a higher penalty, a conclusion that was disputed not just by Justice Abad, but also by Justices Teresita De Castro and Justice Diosdado Peralta. All of them asked the government to show where in the new law this exception may be found. The Sol-Gen then, responding to a question from Justice Abad, opined that reposting a libelous post on Facebook may be subject also to a libel prosecution, but pressing the “Like” button may not be as the latter may represent only an opinion. Justice Abad though observed that while the Solicitor-General has opinions on these matters, the reality is because of the uncertainty on the legal consequences of reposting and liking, this may lead to the chilling of the rights of the citizens to express themselves on facebook.

Justice Antonio Carpio reiterated his view that the current jurisprudence on libel recognizing the actual malice rule in New York Times vs. Sullivan has rendered the libel provisions of the Revised

Penal Code as unconstitutional. Justice Marvic Leonen then asked why Congress, despite the jurisprudence, insisted on a cross-reference to Art. 355 of the Revised Penal Code despite the fact that this provision literally runs counter to jurisprudence. He then asked if the Court should not make a declaration that Sec 4(C) 4 of the cyberlaw is unconstitutional to highlight the distinction between the codal provision on libel in the RPC and jurisprudence. He asked: “may it be that the RTC Judge who convicted Adonis applied the language of the RPC and not the jurisprudence on actual malice?”

Anent the collection of real-time data, there appears to be consensus amongst the Justices that without judicial intervention, the section may lead to an invasion of privacy. Justice Antonio Carpio asked the Sol-Gen how he would feel if the government procures a record of his phone history from his phone company without his consent and whether this would be constitutional. The Sol-Gen replied: “constitutional but barely”, highlighting that these phone records would be “external” information for which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. What the right covers would be the content of these individual calls, which he described as “internal” information. But where the Justices had great misgivings was on “due cause” as basis for the collection of the real time data. Justice Carpio elicited an admission from the government that it is uncertain who will determine that “due cause” exists. The Sol-Gen opined that it should be the law enforcement agency itself. Moreover, Justice Carpio bewailed why law enforcement agencies want to take a short cut. In his words, law enforcement agents “can always go to a Judge for a warrant”. He even said that the

Supreme Court could even designate Judges to act on these applications for warrants. Justice De Castro observed the absence of a definition of “due cause” which in turn, Justice Mariano Del Castillo said might be “subject to abuse”.

There too were important points raised on cybersex. The Sol-Gen explained that the legislative intent of the provisions against cybersex was to penalize prostitution on the Internet and trafficking

and not to punish obscenity. Justice Abad inquired why the law did not mention prostitution and trafficking in the language of the law. Justice Reyes also asked if the cyber law’s provision on “luring” is superfluous given that the same is already punished in a special statute.

Pursuant to tradition, the Chief Justice asked the last questions. She observed that almost all of the questioned provisions of the law are found in the section on “content related offenses” and that these provisions appeared to be “forced insertions”. She was comparing the “loose” language of these provisions with the very precise language of the other offenses such as cyber squatting. She then asked if there was a way of saving the legislation even if the questioned provisions were

to be declared unconstitutional. The Sol-Gen responded that under the principle of separation of powers, the clear intent of Congress is to penalize all those acts classified as content related offenses.

I received a tweet asking if the nation should now say “kudos” to the Supreme Court. Well, my reply is: too soon. My oral argument against the cyberlaw was my 10th opportunity to argue before the Court. The lesson I’ve learned is this: Never celebrate until the decision is actually handed down.

Lets continue to pray and hope that the supremacy of the Constitution will once more be upheld.

Cybercrimes and Freedom of Expression

Despite the view of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights that Philippine criminal libel is contrary to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on freedom of expression, Congress and President Benigno Aquino III still enacted the Cybercrime Prevention Law which, among other things, added electronic libel as a new criminal offense.

Worse, this new law increased the penalty for cyber libel to prision mayor from the current prision correctional provided under the Revised Penal Code.

This means that electronic libel is now punished with imprisonment from six years and one day to up to 12 years, while those convicted for ordinary libel under the RPC are subject to imprisonment only from six months and one day to four years and two months. And because parole, a means by which a convict may be spared from actual imprisonment may be granted only to those sentenced to serve a prison term for no more than six months and one day, anyone convicted for cyber libel will inevitably serve a prison term.

Since the Philippines leads the rest of the world in terms of Facebook and Twitter usage, this means that unlike ordinary libel complaints which are oftentimes brought against printed newspapers -given the element of publication, any user of these leading social media tools is now liable for prosecution. The fact that an allegedly libelous writing appeared on the Internet is already sufficient to prove the element of publication.

The new Cybercrime law is an outright defiance of the UN Human Rights Committee View in the case of Alexander Adonis vs. Republic of the Philippines.

In that View, the UNHRC declared that Philippine libel law under the RPC contravenes freedom of expression on two counts: one, it is a disproportionate means by which to achieve its avowed goal of protecting the privacy of private persons; and two, because there is an alternative in the form of civil libel, or the payment of damages.

The UN HCR also took the view that our libel in the Philippines, because it does not recognize truth as a defense, is additionally defective on this ground.

While the View of the UNHRC is this instance is non-binding, the Philippines nonetheless is under an obligation to heed it because of the maxim “pacta sundt servanda”, or that treaty obligations must be complied with in good faith. The UN Human Rights Committee Views, since the membership of the body consist of leading experts in human rights, are accepted as authoritative on the issue of states compliance with their obligations under the ICCPR.

Simply put, the view against our libel law is very strong evidence of breach of a state obligation under the ICCPR And instead of heeding the UN’s call to review its existing libel law, Congress and President Aquino appeared to have slammed the body by enacting an even more draconian legislation against cyber libel.

Our constitutional commitment to freedom of expression has long been recognized. Justice Holmes, for instance, wrote: “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market . . . .”

The commitment exists because it is only through freedom of expression that we are able to discern the truth and able to fiscalize despotic regimes: “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty—and thus a good unto itself—but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.

By criminalizing internet libel, government expanded the infringement of freedom of expression even to the realm that has enabled us to give life to the principle of a free market place of ideas- the internet. Prior to this law, it is ironic that the Philippines was even cited by the United Nations for not interfering with the internet. The law is a testament to the reality that despite the overwhelming mandate given to this administration, coupled with its unprecedented public approval ratings, it continues to be insecure and unable to compete in the market place of ideas.

We will see the Aquino administration in court on this one. And we will prevail. For unlike other laws that enjoy the presumption of regularity, this cybercrime law, insofar as it infringes on freedom of expression, will come to court with a very heavy presumption of unconstitutionality.

There can be nothing sadder than suing the son of icons of democracy for infringement into a cherished right.