Human Rights Watch: Cybercrime law violates free expression rights

Jonathan de Santos
Yahoo! Southeast Asia Newsroom

New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch on Friday urged the Philippine government to "repeal or replace" the Cybercrime Prevention Act, saying it violates the Constitution as well as international conventions.

Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, said the law "violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines has been a partner since 1986, ensures "the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

But Adams said the provisions in the Cybercrime Act that raise the penalty for libel and give the government the power to shut down websites and collect computer data without warrants endanger free speech. "Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader--including government officials--bring a libel charge," Adams said.

"So long as it stands, the new cybercrime law will have a chilling effect over the entire Philippine online community," he also said. Even before the Cybercrime law was passed this month, the UN Human Rights Committee had already called on the Philippines to decriminalize libel.

"Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime," Adams said.

Senator Edgardo Angara, author of the law at the Senate, said on September 21 that it will keep the Internet from being "a wild frontier where no due process is afforded to victims of legitimate Internet-related crimes."

"We have to give the law a chance and see how it will be implemented. Only then will the loopholes and the gaps be identified and properly addressed. But as it is, I believe this law is a milestone for ICT in the country," he said.

Despite this, two of Angara's colleagues have already taken steps to amend the bill. Senator Francis Escudero, who has been pushing to decriminalize libel, said he wants the provision on libel changed.

"I’ll take out the criminal liability but the civil liability provision will be intact, meaning no jail penalty," he said.

Senator Teofisto Guingona III, who voted against passage of the bill, has petitioned the Supreme Court to void the provisions of the Cybercrime Act that he said exposed individuals to double jeopardy, are vague, and would stifle freedom of speech.

"The last time I checked, we were still a democracy. We want empowered citizens, not scared and passive ones," he said.

Five petitions—including one filed by journalists and bloggers—have been filed at the SC asking it to review and void portions of the Cybercrime Act.