Protesters display placards and crossed-out portraits of Philippine senators who proposed the cybercrime bill in 2012. Pic: AP.

The Philippine Supreme Court, on Tuesday, voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.  But it also took out several articles and provisions of the law that it found incongruous to the freedoms of expression and speech.

Among those taken out by the Supreme Court was the power given to the Department of Justice to restrict access to websites without prior court order.  It also found unconstitutional the provision which grants government the right to collect real-time data without prior court order or a warrant.

The controversial law, opposed by journalists and rights groups, was passed in 2012 to arrest crimes committed in cyberspace, among them computer-related theft, system and data interferences, illegal access and interception of computer and cyberspace data, cybersquatting and cybersex, and a host of others.  The law was questioned by rights groups and activists for some of its patently unconstitutional provisions, including fears it would be used to curtail press freedom.

The Supreme Court, finding the need to keep abreast of the rapidly changing information and technology medium for communication, has now also declared “computer system or other similar means that may be devised in the future” to be covered by libel laws, where before it only covered publication in print or broadcast on radio or television.

It likewise narrowed culpability of cyber libel to the first poster or originator of an article or content, with those making comments, sharing and liking immune to such charges.

While the law will boost the drive against anti-cyberspace crimes, opponents and critics said the Supreme Court failed to seize the opportunity to abolish one of the archaic penal crimes under Philippine Laws – the law on libel.

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The Penal Code of the Philippines still considers libel a criminal offense, an edict the National Union of Journalist in the Philippines (NUJP) found not only antiquated but also an affront to the fundamental human right of freedom of speech and expression.

The NUJP, the country’s largest organization of journalists and media practitioners, has been campaigning for the decriminalization of libel in the Philippines.

In upholding the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, the Supreme Court not only negated and ignored popular clamor from the media to abolish libel as a criminal offense, the highest magistrate of the land likewise upheld the penal provision on the law on cyberspace which increases penalties compared to what was already stated in the Philippine Revised Penal Code.

The NUJP called the Supreme Court decision a “half-inch forward but a century backward.  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.”

“This sets the campaign for the decriminalization of libel at least two steps back,” the editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer echoed.

NUJP vowed to support moves to appeal the ruling.

In the Philippine setting, libel suits have been used to harass, intimidate and persecute members of the press critical of public figures, not to mention government officials and even mere functionaries.

As a member of the working press, I believe nobody should be sent to prison for exercising one’s right to freedom of expression nor any law should be passed to abridge the freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court scales of justice looked for balance on this one, but came up very short.