Repressive law

SINCE its introduction to Filipinos in 1994, the Internet has provided boundless channels for people to exercise their right to know, express and be heard.
Article III Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution states that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
As protected by international human rights laws and as supported by democracies in the world, the principle of freedom of expression applies not only to traditional media, but also to other types of emerging platforms such as the Internet.
This is recognized to give people a conducive environment for participation and to allow them to contribute to development, democracy and dialogue.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
And so does the Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Ironically, the very institution expected to protect and promote such rights, decided to act otherwise.
On February 18, the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) declared several provisions in the Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 as “constitutional.”
The highly contested Cybercrime law was signed by President Benigno Aquino in September 2012 but its implementation was suspended by the High Court. Initially, the Cybercrime law was aimed to penalize online-related crimes.
In its declaration, the SC upheld the law’s penalties to cyber offenses such as: illegal access and  interception, data and system interference, misuse of devices, cyber squatting, computer-related fraud, computer-related identity theft and cybersex.
The dreaded libel provision was also deemed constitutional by the magistrates of the SC. Only the original author will be held liable, while those who receive or react to the post will not be penalized.
Proponents  of the Cybercrime law recognize the power of the Internet in catalyzing democratic and civic participation.
Risks and challenges, including the quality and ethical standards of user-generated content, security and privacy of citizens, insufficient children protection, opacity of personal data collection and processing, governments’ surveillance and filtering arising from Internet access, have led to the provisions of the Cybercrime law.
All these concerns are admirable.
But supporters of the Cybercrime law have failed to recognize that while most issues were addressed in the provisions, the essential right of Filipinos to freedom of expression had to take a major hit.
Internet users, bloggers, media and other civil society groups have continually challenged the legality of some of the law’s provisions, including the penalty for online libel. They were also critical of some of the conditions stated in the measure, as they are widely perceived to be a clear curtailment of freedom of expression.
Needless to say, Pinoy netizens expressed disappointment anew over the recent decision by the SC.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) described the law as “a half-inch forward but a century backward.”
“For while the high court rightly declared a number of provisions of the statute unconstitutional, it otherwise upheld the law and, worse, online libel, thus adding yet another element — ironically the very frontier we all believed would be most immune to attempts to suppress free expression — to an offense that former colonizers had, a hundred years ago, declared criminal in nature to stifle dissent, and which succeeding governments have conveniently retained in our Revised Penal Code for the very same reason and as a convenient tool for the corrupt and the inept in power to harass and muzzle those with the temerity to bring their venalities to light,” NUJP said in a statement.
“By extending the reach of the antediluvian libel law into cyberspace, the Supreme Court has suddenly made a once infinite venue for expression into an arena of fear, a hunting ground for the petty and vindictive, the criminal and autocratic,” NUJP further said.
The fight isn’t over. Civil society groups are readying to file a motion for partial reconsideration before the Supreme Court. They are encouraging concerned netizens to, once again, show their collective dissent against the Cybercrime law.
“We can only hope that the Supreme Court will not remain blind to this when appeals to the ruling are filed,” NUJP said.
Clearly, there is a need to further explore complex policies and regulatory issues of the Internet and this controversial law, without compromising the basic human right of free expression and democratic participation.
Until then, think before you post.

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