Criminal Law


CYBERLIBEL: Provisions of laws that you must know about



The Philippine Supreme Court, sitting En Banc, ruled in the case of Jose Jesus M. Disini, Jr. et al. vs. The Secretary of Justice, et al. (G.R. No. 203335, 18 February 2014) that, “cyberlibel is actually not a new crime since Article 353, in relation to Article 355 of the penal code, already punishes it. In effect, Section 4(c)(4) above merely affirms that online defamation constitutes ‘similar means’ for committing libel.”


Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines defines Libel as a “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”


Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines provides that Libel may be committed by means of “writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means.”


Section 4 (c) (4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175), on the other hand, provides that Libel as defined under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code constitutes a cybercrime punishable under the Act if “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future”.


The High Tribunal declared in the Disini case that Section 5 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, on “Aiding or Abetting in the Commission of Cybercrime” and “Attempt in the Commission of Cybercrime”, is unconstitutional in so far as “cyberlibel” (Section 4 [c] [4]) is concerned. It ruled that:


Libel in the cyberspace can of course stain a person’s image with just one click of the mouse. Scurrilous statements can spread and travel fast across the globe like bad news. Moreover, cyberlibel often goes hand in hand with cyberbullying that oppresses the victim, his relatives, and friends, evoking from mild to disastrous reactions. Still, a governmental purpose, which seeks to regulate the use of this cyberspace communication technology to protect a person’s reputation and peace of mind, cannot adopt means that will unnecessarily and broadly sweep, invading the area of protected freedoms.

If such means are adopted, self-inhibition borne of fear of what sinister predicaments await internet users will suppress otherwise robust discussion of public issues. Democracy will be threatened and with it, all liberties. Penal laws should provide reasonably clear guidelines for law enforcement officials and triers of facts to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. The terms ‘aiding or abetting’ constitute broad sweep that generates chilling effect on those who express themselves through cyberspace posts, comments, and other messages. Hence, Section 5 of the cybercrime law that punishes ‘aiding or abetting’ libel on the cyberspace is a nullity.

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As already stated, the cyberspace is an incomparable, pervasive medium of communication. It is inevitable that any government threat of punishment regarding certain uses of the medium creates a chilling effect on the constitutionally-protected freedom of expression of the great masses that use it. In this case, the particularly complex web of interaction on social media websites would give law enforcers such latitude that they could arbitrarily or selectively enforce the law.

Who is to decide when to prosecute persons who boost the visibility of a posting on the internet by liking it? Netizens are not given ‘fair notice’ or warning as to what is criminal conduct and what is lawful conduct. When a case is filed, how will the court ascertain whether or not one netizen’s comment aided and abetted a cybercrime while another comment did not? Of course, if the ‘Comment’ does not merely react to the original posting but creates an altogether new defamatory story against Armand like ‘He beats his wife and children,’ then that should be considered an original posting published on the internet. Both the penal code and the cybercrime law clearly punish authors of defamatory publications. Make no mistake, libel destroys reputations that society values. Allowed to cascade in the internet, it will destroy relationships and, under certain circumstances, will generate enmity and tension between social or economic groups, races, or religions, exacerbating existing tension in their relationships.

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Section 5 with respect to Section 4(c)(4) is unconstitutional. Its vagueness raises apprehension on the part of internet users because of its obvious chilling effect on the freedom of expression, especially since the crime of aiding or abetting ensnares all the actors in the cyberspace front in a fuzzy way. What is more, as the petitioners point out, formal crimes such as libel are not punishable unless consummated. In the absence of legislation tracing the interaction of netizens and their level of responsibility such as in other countries, Section 5, in relation to Section 4(c)(4) on Libel, . . ., cannot stand scrutiny.

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