CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III on Friday defended a new cybercrime law amid a storm of protests from defenders of freedom of expression and opponents of libel as a criminal offense.
Mr. Aquino specifically backed one of the most controversial elements of the cybercrime law, which mandates that people who post defamatory comments online be given much longer jail sentences than those who commit libel in traditional media.
“I do not agree that it [the provision on libel] should be removed,” Mr. Aquino said. “If you say something libelous [on] the Internet, then it is still libelous …. no matter what the format.”
Another controversial element of the law, which went into effect on Wednesday, allows the government to monitor online activities, such as e-mail, video chats and instant messaging, without a warrant.
The government can also now close down websites it deems to be involved in criminal activities without a warrant.
Human rights groups, media organizations and netizens have voiced their outrage at the new law, with some saying it echoes the curbs on freedoms imposed by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.
Local social media have been vocal with protests this week, while hackers have attacked government websites, and 11 petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court asking the tribunal to overturn parts of the law that infringe on freedoms.
The Philippine Bar Association (PBA) brought the 11th petition on Friday, asking the Supreme Court to void six such sections of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
Lawmakers are considering amending the law to rid it of the controversial provisions. But so long as they haven’t done so, President Aquino wants the portion penalizing online libel to stay.
Speaking to reporters after the induction of 1,000 local leaders of the ruling Liberal Party at Heroes Hall here, Mr. Aquino said the executive department had to enforce the new law otherwise he risked impeachment.
Mr. Aquino explained: “If you write something and it’s libelous, you’re liable. If you’re a broadcaster and you air it on radio or TV, you’re also liable. If you say the same thing on the Internet, I guess that’s also libelous. So in whatever format, the person whose rights were impinged should have redress.”
After all, rights are “bounded” when they impinge on the rights of others, he said.
Mr. Aquino said the authors of the Revised Penal Code worked without the Internet on their mind. This time, with the cybercrime law, the authors made sure that the Internet was covered by the provision on libel, he said.
Facing elections next year, senators, including the authors of the cybercrime law, have scrambled to amend the controversial provisions, including the element that imposes a higher penalty on libel and another that authorizes the Department of Justice to shut down websites without a warrant.
Reelectionist Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano on Friday said Congress should admit its fault in the controversy involving the new cybercrime law.
“Whether you voted for it, you did not vote for it, you weren’t there, if it’s wrong, that’s part of leadership,” Cayetano said. “Sorry, we were wrong, we will correct it.”
The best way for Congress to admit its fault is to amend the law, Cayetano said.
But House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. is not keen on amending the new law. Although seeking reelection, Belmonte said on Friday that he saw no urgency in amending the law and that the senators were in hurry to amend it because they would be running in next year’s elections.
“This is a terrific law, the first law that governs this thing that has become part of our lives and so forth and I think it’s good that we give it a chance to work,” Belmonte said.
Belmonte played down the controversy involving the inclusion of libel in the new law.
“How many [people] have been convicted of libel here in the Philippines?” he asked.
Open to amendments
The President indicated that he was open to amending the higher degree of penalty for online libel, and other “arbitrary procedures.”
“If the penalty is high, then that should be amended,” he said. “If some procedures are very arbitrary—we don’t have the [implementing rules and regulations] yet—then that should be clarified in the law so that there won’t be any abuse in the powers that the state will be exercising. We are not for the suppression of speech.”
Referring to the petitions against the law in the Supreme Court, Mr. Aquino said it was up to the court to rule on the question of constitutionality and Congress to introduce amendments.
Meanwhile, the executive department will enforce the law, the President said.
“The Congress is there—they are ready to amend and listen to people who spoke out belatedly. But after it has been amended, I will sign it as long as it’s the correct version,” he said.
“No man is perfect, and none of his works is perfect. But it’s important that we discuss this soberly to facilitate the process of fixing it.”
Dialogue for rules
Mr. Aquino said there will be talks between Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and interested parties on Oct. 9 prior to the crafting of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR). Internet experts can present all their views there, he said.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, De Lima said the IRR would be enough to deal with fears that the new law could be abused.
She said the rules would make sure that no one would be subjected to double jeopardy.
“For as long as the law being invoked is clear when a case is filed, and there is no subsequent filing of another charge, I think that would not be double jeopardy,” De Lima said.
Section 7 of the new law states that prosecution under the cybercrime act is without prejudice to any liability for violation of any provisions of the Revised Penal Code.
When reminded of that provision, De Lima said: “I don’t think [double jeopardy] was the intent of [the authors of the law].”
IRR not enough
But the PBA, in the petition it brought to the Supreme Court, said that issuing implementation rules could not correct the constitutional defects of the new law.
“An administrative agency has no power to amend or unduly expand the law it implements through the mere issuance of rules and regulations,” the PBA said, referring to the Department of Justice.
The PBA asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order and eventually void provisions of the law that transgress the right to due process, the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to privacy of communications and correspondence, and the right of citizens to protection against double jeopardy. With reports from Philip C. Tubeza, Christian Esguerra, Nancy C. Carvajal, Norman Bordadora and AFP