Philippines: Supreme Court decision may stifle freedom of expression

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The Philippines Supreme Court’s decision to uphold provisions in the Cybercrime Prevention Act that penalize online libel may stifle freedom of expression, the International Commission of Jurists warned today.

Yesterday, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld as constitutional the provisions in the Cybercrime Prevention Act penalizing and increasing the penalty for libel committed online.

“By enacting this law, the Philippines government will inhibit people who try to express themselves through the Internet and electronic media,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ Legal Advisor on Southeast Asia. “The Supreme Court decision unfortunately means that the Philippines has now joined those countries in the ASEAN region that are vainly trying to turn back the tide of greater and freer expression online.”

The Cybercrime Prevention Act (Republic Act No. 10175) was adopted in September 2012, but its application was suspended in October 2012 by a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court.

Several groups, such as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Internet and Society Program of the UP College of Law, and the National Press Club, filed petitions before the Supreme Court alleging that the law on its face violates the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under the Philippine Constitution.

The ICJ considers the Cybercrime Prevention Act as incompatible not only with the Philippine Constitution, but also with Philippines’ international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, including the right to receive and impart information.

“The criminalization of libel or defamation is an affront to freedom of expression,” Gil said. “It’s now up to the Philippine Congress to amend the Cybercrime Prevention Act and decriminalize libel and defamation so as to ensure respect for freedom of expression consistent with its international obligations.”

The Court upheld both Sections 4(4) and 6 of the law, which respectively provide that libel committed through a computer system or similar means is illegal and that responsible persons will incur the penalty one degree higher than what is provided under the Revised Penal Code. Hence, a person found guilty of committing online libel may be subject to imprisonment from six to nine years.

The ICJ has previously expressed opposition to the law, pointing out that its provisions on online libel compound the existing problematic provisions on defamation in the Philippine’s Revised Penal Code and provide for even greater penalties for libel.

The decision of the Supreme Court made a distinction on who may be punished of committing online libel. It specified that only the original author of the allegedly libelous statement and not the recipient or those who disseminated, such as an internet service provider, may be held criminally responsible for online libel under the law.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the international monitoring body of the ICCPR, has said that States should decriminalize libel or defamation. It underlined that in order to comply with their obligations under ICCPR, States may only penalize the most serious defamation cases and even in these cases, “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.” The Philippines has been a party to the ICCPR since 1986.

The ICJ welcomed the Court’s striking down as unconstitutional section 19 of the Act, which gives the Department of Justice power to restrict or block access, without prior judicial determination, to computer data found to be in violation of the law. This is in line with the international standard that no law shall confer unfettered discretion to those charged with its execution the restriction of freedom of expression.

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