Internet libel? It wasn't me, Sotto says

Posted at 09/22/2012 3:27 AM | Updated as of 09/22/2012 4:48 AM
Senator Tito Sotto denies crafting the e-libel rider in the new anti-cybercrime bill despite an admission earlier made by his chief of staff, as well as Senate records stating he inserted the clause near the end of the proposed legislation's amendment period.  ABS-CBNnews.com file photo

MANILA, Philippines - Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III on Friday denied that he was the one behind the last-minute insertion of a libel clause in the Philippines' new anti-cybercrime law.

Sotto, who spoke at a Press Media Week forum in Cebu City, also denied taking part in creating the law except for plenary debates, according to a report from the Sun.Star Cebu regional daily.

He, however, said he supports the libel clause in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act 10175) that was authored by Senator Edgardo Angara to "level the playing field" between journalists and social media users.

The new law's Section 4-C(4) declares that online libel is now considered a cybercrime that can be punished under the Revised Penal Code.

A report by another regional newspaper, The Freeman, said Sotto claimed that the Senate committee that handled the bill approved the online libel rider in the last quarter of 2011.

Sotto said Friday that he only raised the issue of cybersquatting in the bill's plenary discussions.

"Contrary to the claims of my critics,  it was not meant to curtail press freedom, and I repeat, it is in no way meant to curtail press freedom, but to provide ordinary people who are victims of online attacks, character assassination and the like from people who do not observe the standards of journalism," the lawmaker said.

Sotto added libel clause, according to aide, Senate records

His statements run counter to Senate records and an admission made by his own chief of staff, Atty. Hector Villacorta, to journalist and blogger Raissa Robles that Sotto added libel as a "content-related offense" in Republic Act No. 10175 that was signed last week by President Benigno Aquino.

Senate records show that Sotto added the libel amendment on January 24, 2012 (see pages 12-13 on embedded Senate journal below).

He specifically targeted users of social media websites.

"Senator Sotto stated that there are numerous abuses in technology, particularly the video and photo uploading and unnecessary write-ups and comments in social networking systems," the Senate journal said.

He then moved that the Senate end its period of individual amendments.

The proposed anti-cybercrime legislation was approved on second reading a few minutes later, with no objection.

The senators who approved the anti-cybercrime law proposal on third and final reading were Sotto, Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Gregorio Honasan II, Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, Pia Cayetano, Bong Revilla Jr., Jinggoy Ejercito-Estrada, Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Ralph Recto, and Manny Villar.

Senator Teofisto "TG" Guingona, who rejected the proposed measure, has vowed to challenge the law in the Supreme Court.

12-year prison term, no parole for online libel

A person found guilty of libelous comments on the Internet could spend up to 12 years in prison with no possibility of parole, a lawyer earlier warned Wednesday.

Libel committed on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online content was made a more serious crime compared to printed libel under RA 10175, according to Atty. Harry Roque, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Philippines.

"Three times longer imprisonment. Facebook and Twitter may lead to 12 years in jail," he said.  "Imprisonment for e-libel: 6 years and 1 day up to 12 years."

"Conviction for e-libel now comes with a definite prison term. Increased prison term provided by new law makes convicts ineligible for parole," he explained.

In comparison, the penalty for printed libel set by Revised Penal Code is only 6 months and one day to 4 years and 2 months.

The higher penalty for online libel is found in the new law's Section 6, which states:

"All crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by the relevant provisions of this Act: Provided, That the penalty to be imposed shall be one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, as the case may be."

Several other lawyers consulted by ABS-CBNNews.com said the public can ask the Supreme Court for a judicial review of the anti-cybercrime law with regard to some of its provisions that may violate the Constitution, particularly on freedom of expression, prior restraint, equal protection clause, due process, and double jeopardy.

Palace allied party alarmed by RA 10175

Akbayan, a partylist group allied with Malacañang, said in a press statement that "the Aquino government must swiftly act to salvage this law or otherwise the people will have no option left but to bring this to court."

Akbayan told ABS-CBNNews.com on Twitter that officials of the group have no idea if their president, Ronald Llamas, advised Aquino regarding RA 10175 before it was signed ito law.

Llamas serves as Aquino's presidential adviser on political affairs. "Akbayan's not privy to the internal communications between the President and his senior advisers," the group said.

Akbayan, in an earlier press statement, said it is alarmed by some provisions in the anti-cybercrime law, including its anti-libel clause.

"We believe the law's provision on libel is ill-conceived and will only serve to limit the public’s use of the internet as a venue for airing their opinions, views, and even dissent," the partlylist group said.

Akbayan described some portions of the new law law as "vestiges" of military rule under then President Ferdinand Marcos.

"The cybercrime law does not take into consideration the terrain and intricacies of cyberspace. The lack of editorial restraint in cyberspace means that it is the people who comment or simply share an allegedly libelous statement on popular social networking sites who will become the primary targets of the law," the group said.

"The law’s anti-libel clause, which was exposed as a late insertion, has been merely lifted from the anti-libel provision as provided for in the Revised Penal Code," it added. "As a result, the cybercrime prevention law has successfully expanded the pernicious effect of the antiquated and draconian anti-libel provision into the realm of cyberspace."

"It is clear at the onset that ordinary citizens who have posted comments or opinions critical of public officials will be at the mercy of this law. The law can also be abused by erring public officials to discourage criticism, hold back the expression of diverging perspectives and/or completely silence dissent in the cyberworld," it added.

Akbayan also told ABS-CBNNews.com that it opposes other portions of the new law, including provisions that allow law enforcers to monitor data of people and companies on the Internet even without a court warrant, as well as the takedown or blocking of websites even without a court ruling.

The Palace said an inter-agency body will create RA10175's implementing rules and regulations that will be released 90 days from September 12 when Aquino signed the bill into law.