Seares: Maria Ressa, Santos convicted under cyber-libel law that doesn't specify prescriptive period.

Pachico A. Seares

EVEN if all the elements of the crime of cyber-libel filed against Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. had been proven, the case would have been dismissed had the Manila Regional Trial Court agreed with the defense that the crime already prescribed.

The prescriptive period is the time within which a complaint must be filed or the right to file it is lost.

The charges against Ressa and Santos, chief operating officer and former researcher-writer, respectively, of the news website Rappler, were based on a complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng on February 5, 2019. The offensive article was "re-published" on February 19, 2014. Under the Revised Penal Code, it would've already prescribed since libel under that law expires after one year.

Finding both Ressa and Santos guilty beyond reasonable doubt of cyber-libel, RTC Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, however, ruled Monday, June 15, that the penal code provision on prescription does not apply to their case.

Judge Montesa gave no weight to the NBI memo of February 5, 2018, which rejected the businessman's complaint because it had already prescribed, saying it was merely an internal communication of a unit in the executive department and does not bind the court. The NBI is law enforcer, not law interpreter, the judge said.

Not ordinary libel

This is not ordinary libel but cyber-libel, she pointed out. The Anti-Cybercrime Law (Republic Act 10175) applies, she said. When the special law provides no prescriptive period, and RA 10175 does not, Act 3326 governs. And the latter law specifies the different prescriptive periods for different crimes, basing on the penalties: after one year, four years, eight years, and 12 years.

The penalty of imprisonment, for Ressa and Santos, is an indeterminate sentence of from six months and one day to six years, which fits in snugly under the 12-year-prescriptive-period bracket. (Each was also ordered to pay P200,000 for moral damages and P200,000 for exemplary damages. Keng had asked for P50 million.)

Summing up: the cyber-libel law does not provide for a prescriptive period. The Revised Penal Code prescriptive term of one year does not apply. Instead, the judge used the law (Act #3326) that applies to crimes covered by special laws. And the penalty for cyber-libel fits snugly into the 12-year bracket.

Law's silence

Rappler's Ressa and Santos were up against this lapse of legislators in crafting cyber-libel as a crime: failure of the law to specify the prescriptive period. The new law clearly says that the penalty for cyber-libel is one degree higher than that provided in the penal code. But it is woefully silent on the prescriptive period.

While legislators might have intended to lengthen the prescriptive period, if they thought raising the penalty was not enough, they shouldn't have forgotten the purpose of a prescriptive period. The limit on filing time is to dissuade charges that may only be aimed to harass, with records and witnesses' testimony obscured or flawed by time. To journalists, the impact is greater, since the threat to sue can dangle over them for 12 years from publication of each potentially litigious published material.

Price of omission

Did lawmakers intend the 12-year prescriptive period? Most highly unlikely. The jump from one year to 12 years is too high, given the logic of the Statute of Limitations.

The cost of legislative omission is now being paid by Ressa and Santos and will be suffered in the future by others accused of cyber-libel, mostly mainstream journalists who also write in the web and social media users. The sword will hang over each of them for 12 long years.

[DISCLOSURE: Seares is also executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), which has advocated for amendment by Congress of the law on cyber-libel, pushing particularly for a specified prescriptive period.]