Chris Lao talks about online libel, Cedric and Deniece

Posted at 02/19/14 5:21 PM

MANILA - You have been informed.

Christopher Lao, a former law student and now a practicing lawyer who became a victim of cyberbullying in 2011, believes the Supreme Court is correct in upholding the online libel provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

He is also open to the possibility of representing controversial businessman Cedric Lee and model Deniece Cornejo in a possible lawsuit against online bashers.

In an interview with ABS-CBNnews.com, Lao said he expected the SC decision on the online libel clause since the Court decides only in accordance with law.

He also backed the SC decision to declare as unconstitutional the take-down clause of the law.

"The takedown clause was an abridgment of freedom of speech/expression, hence unconstitutional. It was an abridgment because regardless of the content, whether protected speech or not, the speech could be curtailed. Such is censorship, definitely not allowed by the Constitution which puts premium on freedom of speech/expression," he said.

"Online libel is different. It is not censorship but a punishment for an injurious exercise of one's freedom. The Constitution recognizes limits on freedoms, lest we are a rule of men, not of law, where anarchy and doom of mankind would be certain," he added.

Lao said netizens still have the right to freedom of expression "but in so doing, let us be mindful not to injure anyone."

"If we do, there are consequences, so as to deter others from similar damaging behavior. We are free but not free to the point of destruction," he said.

Alcohol abuse, illness

Lao, of course, is speaking from experience.

Lao became the target of online ire after a TV news report showed him blaming other people when he drove his car onto a flooded street in Quezon City last August 2011.

His phrase "I should have been informed" during the TV interview was mocked in social networking sites and his name was a trending topic on Twitter.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility later said Lao had become a victim of social media excess because of the online abuse heaped on him.

In a speech last 2012, Lao opened up about his painful experience with cyberbullying and how it made him fall into alcohol abuse and illness.

He said the incident destroyed his reputation even as he was struggling to finish law school.

"I built my whole life practically around my reputation and when that was taken away from me overnight, you could just imagine the horror I went through. I lost my identity. I abused alcohol. I sought professional help. I saw a shrink who prescribed medicines of course so I incurred expenses. Until now, I am still under medication.’

"I felt crushed. My experience proves a close connection between your mind and your body. My body wasn’t physically attacked but the signals that my body got from my mind were the same, as if I had been physically mauled by thousands of people. I bled profusely. I couldn't believe that phenomenon. My doctors explained it was due to inexplicable stress. My blood vessels erupted because of stress. Bakit? Binasa ko lahat eh. Meron akong title: Pambansang Bobo ng Pilipinas. Wow, thank you.”

He said the stress got so bad that he rejected all external stimuli including food and water.

“I didn't crave for food and water. I wasn't hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. It was such a strange thing. For days, I was like a monster,” he said.

In the 2012 forum, Lao aired his support for the online libel provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, saying there is no law against cyberbullying.

He noted that there have been cases in the US where young people commit suicide because of cyberbullying.

Punishing the bullies

The online abuse against Lao was raised by Justice Marvic Leonen during the Supreme Court oral arguments on petitions to declare the Cybercrime Prevention Law unconstitutional.

During the oral arguments, Leonen asked if Lao should be protected by the state from cyber bullying. He also asked if it was a legitimate state interest to protect minority views from bullying by the majority.

Lao, a former student of Leonen, said he doubts if his case affected the decision of the SC.

He said his experience and those of other cyberbullying victims such as Paula Salvosa were relevant examples on online libel.

"It was just a good illustration of why libel in the penal books extend to the Internet, which by the way is nothing but another medium," he said.

Lao said it is up to Congress to define the penalty for online libel. Several bloggers have pointed out that the penalty for online libel is one degree higher than the prescribed penalty for libel under the Revised Penal Code.

Under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, the penalty for libel ranges from P200 to P6,000 on top of the six months to 6-year-long jail time.

"If Congress thinks that levying such a harsh penalty is going to serve its purpose of deterring the menacing behavior, so be it. Nothing we can do except lobby for a change. Perhaps have it reduced, etc. etc," Lao said.

Online commentary against government is also protected, he said, since public officials are held to a much higher standard "that remarks against them have the benefit of the doubt."

"Commentaries like that can't be said to be moved by an evil mind," he said.

However, he also said that online libel must have a penalty to deter those who would do it.

"Why are they too scared? Are they going to commit it? If they have no plans of engaging in such a behavior, there's no reason for the ruckus. It stamps the message for me, being a victim myself," he said.

"It also gives rise to criminal liability. Such is the characterization because it is an action borne out of a malicious mind. Hence, it must be contained. KULONG in other words," he added.

Will Lao sue online detractors?

Reactions to the SC decision on the Cybercrime Prevention Act have been varied. On Wednesday President Aquino defended the law, saying it would not be used to stifle online commentary.

Lao said one thing that the Cybercrime Prevention Act gives is a haven for those who have been wronged and maligned online.

"Seriously, I feel for those wronged on the net. Now the recourse is made clear by the decision and hopefully, the decision has the effect of deterring the wrongdoers," he said.

His advice to victims of cyberbullying? "The law has afforded you haven. You are not helpless."

Will he use the law to sue his online detractors? "They're not worth my while," Lao said.

Lao said he has had a few clients who were victims of cyberbullying. Usually, he files a cease and desist letter to the offending party to "remove the defamatory article, plus damages, etc."

Demand letters are enough, he said, and the case rarely goes to court.

Is he willing to take on high-profile and cyberbullied clients such as Cedric Lee and Deniece Cornejo, who have been accused of conspiring in the mauling of actor/comedian Vhong Navarro?

"Why not?! Everybody has a right to counsel. Pitted against the enormous weaponry of the State, a lawyer is all an accused has. They have rights too, you know," he said.

He, however, added that he might charge higher because the job would surely come with online criticism.

"Dahil maba-bash ako, hmm, mataas singil ko given the risks, lol. But by now, I should be used to bashing. So yeah, that shouldn't prevent me from representing my clients with my fullest advocacy," he said.

If he is hired by Lee and Cornejo, he said he would advise them to go after the "big fish."

"I will advise them to go after the big fish para worthwhile naman. Yan we have yet to identify, baka media nga. Hahahaha," he said.

Nearly three years after his own experience with online bullying, Lao said he is fine with being "the face of the campaign against cyberbullying."

"It's my special way of contributing to society, which by the way paid for my college and law degrees," he said.