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Philippine Supreme Court makes controversial ruling on libel

Activists and experts say it violates free speech and opens door to surveillance
Philippine Supreme Court makes controversial ruling on libel

Philippine activists protest against the country's cybercrime law, which penalizes crimes like online libel. (Photo by Rene Sandajan)

The Supreme Court in the Philippines ruled on Tuesday that a controversial online libel provision in the country's cybercrime law is constitutional.

The court suspended implementation of the law in October 2012 after various groups filed petitions questioning the constitutionality of some of the law’s provisions, including penalties for libel.

The court ruled that only the "original author" of libelous material is covered by the cybercrime law, and not those who received or reacted to the material on social media or other forms of online communication.

"The court ... declared [a section of the law], which penalized online libel, is not unconstitutional with respect to the original author of the post but unconstitutional only where it penalizes those who simply receive the post or react to it," said Theodore Te, spokesman of the Supreme Court, during a press briefing.

Activists who questioned the legality of the law had asked the court to strike down several of its provisions for violation of the right to free speech. 

The petitioners said that imposing a punishment for people found guilty of libel while also allowing them to be charged separately under the country’s Revised Penal Code violated the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a provision penalizing anyone who "aids or abets" the commission of cybercrimes, and anyone who attempts the commission of cybercrimes, involving "illegal access, illegal interception, data interference, system interference, misuse of devices, cyber squatting, computer-related fraud, computer-related identity theft and cybersex."

A wide array of information technology professionals and activists immediately condemned the court's decision.

"The people have long expressed its verdict to junk the [law],” said Gladys Regalado, deputy national coordinator of the Computer Professionals’ Union. She said the law looks more like "a recipe for a surveillance society rather than an instrument to fight so-called cybercrimes."

She said that while the government is bestowed with more powers to monitor its citizens, "full disclosure of its operations to the people is absent".

Renato Reyes Jr of Bayan, an alliance of leftist militant organizations, said the Supreme Court ruling constitutes a “continuing threat against free speech”, adding that it is “another huge step back for freedom of expression”.

Congressman Terry Ridon of the Youth Party said that even if the court excised some portions of the law, it remains a “threat to internet freedom”.

“We believe that it will still impede our civil liberties in the cyber world. The upholding of the provision for online libel, for example, poses imminent threats to many content creators,” said Ridon, who served as legal counsel in one of the 15 petitions filed before the court.

He said that libel in itself has been abused to harass and malign journalists. “What's stopping cunning individuals from exploiting the new online libel provision? I see none,” Ridon said.

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