The Philippines supreme court voted unanimously today to impose a 120-day temporary restraining order on the "Cybercrime Prevention Act 2012" pending hearings beginning 15 January to determine whether any of its provisions violate civil liberties.
The court issued its ruling in response to 15 petitions against the law, known as Republic Act No. 10175, which President Benigno Aquino signed on 12 September.
Reporters Without Borders takes the view that the amendments being proposed will not suffice and that the law should be repealed outright. Combatting cybercrime is legitimate but this law, which added online defamation to its list of "cybercrimes” at the last moment, poses too much of a threat to freedom of information.
It is regrettable that the authorities did not consult sufficiently with civil society during the drafting process, which lacked transparency.
Demonstrators gathered outside the supreme court building today in protest against the law, which has also prompted calls for an Internet boycott. Local activists and media groups have been expressing concern and campaigning against it since April.
Reporters Without Borders is worried by the lack of a precise definition of online defamation, which exposes all Internet users to the possibility of prosecution. Many questions are being raised about the law:
- Could an ordinary "like" on Facebook or an online comment about allegedly defamatory content lead to prosecution? Or could retweeting this kind of content lead to prosecution?
- Would bloggers be held liable for the defamatory comment that visitors post on their blogs?
- Could Internet Service Providers or other technical intermediaries be held liable for offending content posted by an unidentified person, as recently happened in Brazil? Would they be forced to adopt intrusive surveillance measures in order to identify Internet users liable for prosecution?
In the Philippines, libel is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison and a fine of 200 to 6,000 pesos under article 355 of the 1930 Revised Penal Code. That's bad enough, but under Chapter III Section 8 of Republic Act No. 10175, online defamation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison and a fine of 1 million pesos.
Concern about possible abuse of the new law is justified given the frequency with politicians and other public figures have sued journalists and news media in recent years to get them to censor themselves.
But Global Voices quotes Internet users as describing the inclusion of online defamation in the law as a "clumsy cut-and-paste job" that is completely inappropriate to the Internet and could pave the way to abuses.
The law's articles on online defamation are an almost word-for-word copy of the definition of libel in article 353 of the Reformed Penal Code, simply adding that they apply to defamation committed by electronic means.
Asia’s first murder of a journalists in 2012 took place in the Philippines, which continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media and which was ranked 140th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Photo : Tudla Productions