No consolation: The SC and the Cybercrime Law

In an age where citizen participation in the fight against corruption is being solicited by governments around the world, the Philippines’ highest court has just opened the gate to those out to harass watchdogs.

As a member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), I have always stood for the decriminalization of libel. I have yet to read the full text of the decision but think, it’s hardly any consolation that the ruling reportedly exempts cases where it covers persons other than the original author.

I am talking not just as a journalist. The SC ruling leaves a huge swathe of our social-media crazy people vulnerable.

Slide1When does a reaction to a news report, blog or analysis cover enough new ground to become an original work?

Social media has helped people engage in discussions, in parsing out other people’s views, in engaging in free, fierce but most often, civil debate.

This calls for more than a retweet, more than a “like”, more than a share. In many posts, I am fascinated by the comments thread, where people add tidbits of their own info in an effort to provide greater context to a debate.

And this is the era of citizen journalism, where people in a certain area often step in to fill the media vacuum.

In the Philippines and elsewhere, governments, even if some may just be engaging in lip service, have encouraged citizens to monitor abuses and anomalies.

In my former job as head of citizen journalism, we tried to monitor the patently libelous posts. But the problem with libel as a criminal offense is, it encourages reprisals even when a post is true, fair and motivated by the best intentions. A criminal case is always a cause for concern. You think warlords care about the effort you took to be fair and truthful?

Governments asks citizens for help in curbing the monster that is corruption. THIS IS THEIR REWARD. Unjust doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The Supreme Court decision on the Cybercrime Law only makes citizen watchdogs vulnerable to people in power with the resources to harass voices of dissent.

This is especially tragic since truth is not a defense in libel under PH law. The criminal nature of libel in this country makes it the perfect tool of harassment (short of murder, which has also taken out so many Filipino journalists). For those who say only the unethical and the corrupt have to fear libel, think again. Many award-winning, highly-praised articles and series have been the bases for libel charges. Again, truth, ethics, won’t spare you. Not from the appalling cost of having to defend yourself in a criminal case.
Complainants may file their cases anywhere an offending article can be seen. They’ve done this to journalists. In the digital age, your blog and social media post can be read everywhere and woe to the poor citizen caught in the maws of a vindictive official.
And yet, the DOJ has been slapped down and there IS some consolation there.
It was outrageous that the Cybercrime Law’s most onerous provision  — the take down clause — was actually pushed and vehemently defended by an agency tasked to ensure that government actions hew to accepted norms of justice and civil liberties.
The DOJ justified this by warning of the evil lurking around the information highway.
As if one keeps the country safe by roping in the innocent along with the criminals. As if democracy is defended by stifling the right to free expression. As if the leaders of this country — because President Aquino signed the law and sent his men to defend it — suddenly got hold of a new definition of democracy, one where the onus of guilt lies a citizen’s shoulders.
Whether or not you’re satisfied with the Supreme Court decision on the Cybercrime law, you can be assured of one thing: under the current climate of governance, those with the most reasons to silence opposing views and those with most to hide, will be crowing and giving each other high-fives.
Then again, nobody told us fighting for democracy would be a picnic. Given – the powers-that-be will exhaust all means to narrow democratic space. The question is, will we allow them? Will we roll over in defeat? Or do we fight tooth and nail for the right to free expression?
The fight must go on.

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