philippines_pifa_black_tuesday_free_pifa_532The Supreme Court of the Philippines has begun hearing 15 petitions filed by various groups and individuals including journalists and free press advocates. against the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. The arguments for the petitioners were heard on Tuesday 5 January 2013 and the arguments of the Solicitor-General opposing the petitions will be heard on Tuesday 22 January 2103.

The Act was signed into law by President Benigno S. Aquino III on 12 September 2012.  It penalizes (1) offenses against the confidentiality, integrity and availability of computer data and systems; (2) computer-related offenses; and (3) content-related offenses including libel/defamation “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”

Implementation of the Act was suspended after the Supreme Court issued a 120-day Temporary Restraining Order on 9 October 2012.

Freedom of expression is respected under Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code, libel is defined “as a 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 dishonor, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.” In libel, publication is a requirement, which must be in writing or similar means. On the other hand, slander constitutes oral defamation under Article 358 of the Revised Penal Code. Libel and slander are punishable by imprisonment. In a criminal offense of libel, truth may be given in evidence if it appears that the matter charged as libelous is true and that it was published with good motives and with justifiable ends ( see 361 of the Revised Penal Code).

Journalists and media advocacy groups in the Philippines like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have called for the decriminalization of libel for decades. In October 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s decided that the criminal sanction for libel in the Philippines was “excessive” and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  There is a discussion of this issue on the excellent Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility site.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act defines several new acts of “cybercrime.” Among the acts prohibited are “cybersex,” online child pornography, illegal access to computer systems or hacking, online identity theft, and spamming. A section on libel defines this as acts “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” The new law increases the penalty for computer-related libel, with the minimum punishment raised from six months to six years. The maximum punishment is doubled from six to twelve years in prison.  There is more material on the Act on the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility site.

A detailed discussion of the question of “Decriminalising Philippine Libel Laws” can be found on Berne Guerrero’s blog.

The NGO Human Rights Watch has condemned the new law and called on the Philippines government to repeal its existing criminal libel law.  Its Asia Director, Brad Adams said

“The cybercrime law needs to be repealed or replaced. It violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.  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.  Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.

Developments can be followed on the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility blog, “In Media Res” – which has a post on the “Supreme Court Discourse on Cybercrime Law”.