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Sword of Damocles

Uriel Quilinguing . 

RAPPLER chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa has been temporarily released after posting a P100,000 bail bond the day after her arrest on Tuesday. This, after the Department of Justice found probable cause on a cyber libel complaint which businessman Wilfredo Keng filed against her, Rappler Holdings Corp., and news writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.. Ressa’s situation is unprecedented, hence this could be a test case in the cybercrime law application.

Firstly, this is the first-ever cyber libel case that stemmed from a news article published on the Rappler website on May 29, 2012, roughly four months before the enactment of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, otherwise Republic Act No. 10175, in September 2012. The fact that National Bureau of Investigation agents served the warrant of arrest caught many by surprise, including Ressa and those at Rappler, much more because it was past government office hours.

Secondly, many journalists are familiar with the one-year prescriptive period for libel or defamation through publication under the Revised Penal Code, particularly under Article 353. Slander, which is an oral defamation, only has a six-month limitation. But Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete, in a television interview on Feb. 14, said they have extended the liability period for the crime of libel to 12 years.

Is it ethical for DOJ to unilaterally provide a prescriptive period for the filing of cyber libel complaints? To my mind, the Cybercrime Prevention Act is silent on this since Republic Act 10175 is a special law that supplements the provisions of the Revised Penal Code. As such, the liability period remains at one year. The idea of continuing offense is ridiculous because I don’t think a person, whose reputation has been maligned, would have sleepless nights for several years before he can decide to formally complain.

Thirdly, I believe that this is the best time for the legal luminaries of the Supreme Court to issue its collegial opinion on this, in due and proper time. Now, I wonder why the SC justices failed to figure out this legal loophole when it suspended the implementation of the cybercrime law a month after it’s enactment in 2012 due to petitions questioning some provisions. Finally, the Supreme Court gave the green light on Feb. 11, 2014.

Finally, the root cause which I can see of this cyberlibel case was the “intelligence report” which Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. made use of in detailing businessman  Wilfredo Keng  “shady pasts” aside from reporting that the then Chief Justice Renato Corona was using his sports utility vehicle, a black Chevrolet suburban. Seasoned journalists know pretty well “intelligence reports” are not reliable since these are unauthenticated documents.

Now, Rappler’s case will have chilling effects not only on mainstream journalists but to all who have social media accounts since whatever is posted online could be used by the aggrieved party in filing a cyber libel complaint. And, mind you, this includes all comments posted on Facebook or Twitter accounts since September 2012 when the Cybercrime Prevention Act took effect. And since newspapers, radio and television, wanting to reach out to the increasing number of netizens, set up their respective websites and other social media accounts, they are all highly vulnerable to cyber libel complaints. Clearly, this is a prior restraint to freedom of expression and a sword of Damocles on press freedom.

(Uriel C. Quilinguing is a former editor-in-chief of this paper.)

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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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