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Amended anti-cybercrime law petition underscores unconstitutionality of libel

Anti Cybercrime law rally at the SC, Oct 2012

By Ellen Tordesillas

Photo by Mario Ignacio of VERA Files.

Last week, we amended our petition against the Cybercrimes Prevention Act of 2012 (R.A 10175) to have it declared wholly as unconstitutional.

“We” refers to our group VERA Files and fellow petitioners namely Davao-based radio broadcaster radio broadcaster Alexander Adonis, lawyers/bloggers Harry Roque, Romel Bagares, and Gilbert Andres, legal officer of Media Defense Southeast Asia.

Our earlier petition filed last Sept 28 asked the Court to declare only the provision of the Cybercrimes Prevention Law on libel as being unconstitutional. In our amended petition, we asked the Supreme Court to expressly declare Art. 355 of the Revised Penal Code providing for the crime of libel also to be unconstitutional.

As explained by our lawyers, Harry Roque and Romel Bagares of The Center for International Law and the Southeast Asia Media Defense, “We’ve had to clarify that pursuant to the View of the UN Human Rights Committee in Adonis vs. Republic of the Philippines, libel under the Revised Penal Code is contrary to freedom of expression. In its annual report this year on the Philippines, the UN Human Rights Committee also decried that instead of complying with this view and repeal Art 355 of the RPC, the Philippines even expanded the coverage of libel through the Cybercrime Prevention Act.”

Roque said, “It is important to have both libel under the RPC and under the new law be declared as illegal. Prior to the amended petition, the petition only asked the Court to indirectly declare the ordinary crime of libel as unconstitutional by implication. Since Art. 355 was reproduced by way of reference in the definition of electronic libel with the additional element that it should have been published electronically, it is incumbent for the Court to also consider the issue of whether ordinary libel is constitutional. The amended petition was necessary since the law does not favor implied declarations of unconstitutionality.”

Our petition is one of the 15 filed against the Cybercrime law signed by President Aquino on Sept. 13, 2012. The Supreme Court issued a 120-day temporary restraining order on the implementation of the law that has generated widespread concern on its effect on basic freedoms. The High Court has scheduled oral arguments on Jan. 15.

Our petition stressed on the human rights issue of the law especially the provision on libel. Our co-petitioner Adonis was imprisoned for three years after he was convicted for libel in a suit filed by former House Speaker Prospero Nograles.

Nograles brought the suit against Adonis in 2001 over a radio report citing newspaper accounts that the congressman was seen running naked in a Manila hotel shortly after the husband of a woman he was allegedly having an affair with caught them in bed.

Adonis was sentenced to four years and six months in prison.

With the help of Atty. Roque, he questioned his imprisonment for libel as a violation of his right to free expression and brought it to the UN Human Rights Committee, which declared that criminal libel in the Philippines conflicts with the country’s obligations under Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

According to the United Nations, Philippine criminal libel is contrary to Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because it is disproportionate to the ends that it seeks, that is, the protection of privacy of private individuals; and that there are an alternative in the form of civil libel.

Roque said those whose right to privacy may be violated by the media after criminal libel is declared unconstitutional or repealed by a law of Congress can still have recourse to a civil case for damages and recourse to the media’s self-regulating mechanisms such as the Philippine Press Institute for the print media and the Kapisanan ng Brodkasters ng Pilipinas for radio and television.

Our petition against the Cybercrime Prevention Act is the only petition that challenges the constitutionality of libel law in the country. Roque said: “We’re excited to argue this issue since we believe that there are now changed circumstances to warrant a reversal of previous Supreme Court decisions upholding the legality of libel. Some of these include our ratification of the ICCPR itself and the View of the UN Human Rights Committee.”

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