Filipinos face 12 years in prison for online libel under new law

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Filipinos who libel others on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere online could be jailed for up to 12 years under a law that went into effect Wednesday in the Philippines.

The new law against cyber-crime includes a disputed provision that imposes much steeper penalties for committing libel on the Internet than offline. It allows police to shut down websites and do some monitoring of email and online activity without a warrant.


Fears of an increasing government grip on online speech set off a firestorm this week among Filipinos, who have been dubbed some of the most avid users of social media in the world. Rights groups warn that existing libel laws are already vague enough for criticism of the government to be deemed criminal.

“The Philippines was considered a regional leader in Internet freedom,” said Sanja Kelly of the international rights group Freedom House. “This law puts it closer to more authoritarian states.” Even clicking ‘like’ on an offending Facebook post could be construed as libel under the broadly written law, the rights group warned.

Internet freedom groups, journalists and bloggers in the Philippines blacked out their websites Wednesday in protest, calling the new law an unconstitutional trampling of free speech rights. Some took to the streets to protest. Several petitions have already been filed with the Supreme Court challenging the law.

“Libel has been decriminalized in other civilized jurisdictions. Our legislature, instead, will throw us back to the Dark Ages by imposing a higher penalty for libel,” Ateneo de Manila University constitutionalist Joaquin Bernas wrote Monday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Bernas and other critics compared the new penalties to the imposition of martial law under former President Ferdinand Marcos. “So this is how 1972 felt like,” Manila journalist Jojo Pasion Malig said on Twitter. “The only different thing is ‘Gangnam Style’ playing in the background.”

Several government websites went down Wednesday, apparently under attack by hackers.

Presidential spokesmanEdwin Lacierda sought to tamp down the furor over the new law, telling reporters at a televised news conference that “people are spreading the fear of this law, but people should also remember the power of the constitution, the rights that it guarantees.”

Yet Justice Secretary Leila M. de Lima said Monday that her department had recommended that the law be sheared of the disputed rules cracking down on cyber-defamation, cyber-threats and Internet libel.

The first day the law was in effect, some politicians who supported it were already saying it should be amended. Its author, Sen. Edgardo Angara, said he would revisit the higher penalties imposed under the law for online libel, though he argued there needed to be some penalty for such speech.

Is cyberspace “a zone of impunity that you can now begin to lambaste maliciously your enemies without fear of any sanction at all?’ Angara asked ABS-CBN News when asked to respond to the criticism.

Though the cyber-crimes act has quickly become tagged as “the libel law,” many of the other parts of the law have not been controversial, including new rules to quash child pornography and identity theft.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles