Social media erupted with concerns, criticism and fear of the contested Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which online libel provision was upheld by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, deeming it constitutional. As someone who posts statements that are critical of politicians, celebrities and other public figures on Twitter and sometimes here in this space (which is published both offline and online), I’m following this issue closely and how this will all play out.
Can I actually be charged with online libel (and go to jail) for having— and publishing—an opinion? Should I just STFU to keep myself out of trouble? These are the questions that I need a clear answer to; the same questions that many people on social media are asking.
First, the good news. Contrary to previous interpretations of the law in question, SC spokesperson Theodore Te clarified that online libel is a crime committed only by the original author of the libelous content. It does not cover those who receive or react to the post. Therefore, you cannot be held liable for “liking,” “retweeting,” “reposting” or quoting a statement made by somebody.
Further, the law cannot be applied ex post facto, meaning, it’s not retroactive. All posts published before the enactment of the law, including the period of the temporary restraining order against its implementation, are safe from prosecution.
Finally, the court ruled that double jeopardy is unconstitutional, and that libel is only punishable as a violation of either the cybercrime law or the Revised Penal Code, not both.
Now, the bad news. The penalty for online libel remains one degree higher than that prescribed by the Revised Penal Code for libel. A person found guilty of the crime can be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
It is also feared that the law endangers free speech and will be abused by “onion-skinned” individuals by going lawsuit-happy (or at the very least, threaten to sue) when someone says something negative about them. Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon says that the SC decision “poses imminent threats to many content creators.”
Until the first online libel case is tried and decided on, we really won’t know how broad the scope of the law is. For now, we can take comfort in the fact that the definition of online libel is almost exactly the same as “traditional” libel, with the sole explicit difference that the criminal act is committed through electronic and digital media.
To be on the safe side, blogger Noemi Dado, writing for the Philippine Online Chronicles, suggests “writing opinions based on facts, and using words like ‘alleged’ or adding a question mark to a statement.” She explains that “the best defense against anything that would curtail our freedom of expression, be it online or offline, is to express ourselves in words and deeds that are thoughtful, truthful and honest...My husband [who is a lawyer] assures me that I won’t go to jail as long as I write well.”
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