THE CYBERCRIME Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175) has not only united those who have a Facebook or Twitter account, who have a blog or website, who access chat rooms or who use email to communicate in opposing the Act as a grave threat to free expression. It has also led to the realization among journalism and media practitioners who primarily use the old media (print and broadcasting) that the Act also threatens free expression and press freedom.
It is not only because many of them have an online presence in the form of the news sites to which they contribute, the blogs and personal websites they maintain, and the Internet editions of their newspapers and networks. It is also because the inclusion of libel in the Act (and the Act’s raising the penalty for online libel to six to 12 years), in the context of the adamant refusal of Congress to decriminalize the 82-year old libel law, indicates an antipathy to free expression and the predominance of a punitive mindset among the dynasties that rule Congress and Malacañang.
The protests in the week during and following the Act’s effectivity have tended to emphasize the threat to Netizens, in the process implying that the Act is a danger only to the exercise of free expression via the Net. The reality, however, is that it is a threat to everyone including those who use mobile phones and even to those Luddites who disdain the Internet and who prefer to communicate solely through the old media. Once the law finds victims in the form of a blogger sued for libel, or prima facie evidence of libel in a website and the website blocked by the Department of Justice, the likelihood is that it will exacerbate the atmosphere of repression that has begun to take hold among many segments of the press and online community due to, among others the passage of the Act.
The chilling consequence would be self-censorship, and the subsequent decay of the press traditions of investigation and criticism in the old media, while the exuberance that has characterized Internet communication in this country would decline into conformity and acquiescence—if the Act does not otherwise silence millions of critical websites, and bloggers and social media activists.
Because the monitoring systems the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation may put in place as sanctioned by the Act are not likely to have the capability to monitor the issuances of the millions of bloggers, social media users and websites, what’s likely is that they will be selective by monitoring only those sites and individuals that are critical of government. Preventing access to the blogs and sites so monitored is easily justified under the terms of the Act, which requires no due process, only the Department of Justice’s finding of prima facie evidence. In the meantime, the continued operation of the libel law as applied to old media practitioners could result, from the demonstration effect of State action against online sites and practitioners, in even more libel suits (libel is already being used to silence critical journalists in the communities).
Not solely is the Act a form of cyber martial law: it is martial law reborn in the digital age.
The Act is in fact too crafty, and too deliberate an attempt to silence criticism to be anything else but malicious in its intent rather than to have been the result of what some say is the ignorance of the country’s legislators. The passage of the Act must be seen in the context of the refusal of Congress to decriminalize libel despite UN urging, and its repeated failure to even discuss the Freedom of Information Act. RA 10175 is at one and the same time an instrument of repression as well as a means to curb the democratic media, Netizen and citizen demand for accountability and transparency required of responsible governance.
By defending the Act and what’s more, declaring his support for its provision on online libel, President Benigno S. Aquino III has indicated, contrary to earlier claims by his spokespersons, that he signed RA 10175 into law with full knowledge of its contents and its impact on free expression. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has correctly described his support for the Act as a declaration of war against the fundamental right to free expression to which, as in the days of martial rule, every citizen and not only the journalists’, media and online communities must respond.