Published 25 February 2019, The Daily Tribune

The Internet has disrupted every aspect of our lives including how we gather information, communicate with friends and family, and conduct our businesses. But the good always comes with the bad. While the Internet has revolutionized every sphere of human activity, it also facilitated the criminal activities of nefarious individuals.

Recognizing this dual aspect of this paradigm shifting activity, Congress enacted Republic Act 10175, also known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. This new law defined and punished offenses, which may be grouped as follows: offenses against the confidentiality, integrity and availability of computer data systems; computer-related offenses, such as computer forgery, fraud and identity theft, and content-related offenses, such as cybersex, child pornography and, most significantly, cyber libel.

The constitutionality of the provision on cyber libel was subsequently assailed in Disini v. Secretary of Justice (G.R. 203335, 11 February 2014). The Supreme Court (SC), however, ruled that libel is not a constitutionally protected speech. It follows, therefore, the cyber libel is not unconstitutional as well.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 does not really define cyber libel. It penalizes libel, as defined under the Revised Penal Code, but imposes a higher penalty because of the use of information and communication technologies. In Disini, the SC explained this qualifying circumstance arises from the fact that in “using the technology in question, the offender often evades identification and is able to reach far more victims or cause greater harm.”

The elements of libel are the allegation of a discreditable act or condition concerning another; publication of the charge; identity of the person defamed, and existence of malice.

As to the first requirement, the allegation must be a malicious imputation of a crime or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. For cyber libel in particular, the publication requirement is satisfied when the allegation is made publicly through the use of information and communication technologies.

For the third requisite, it is not necessary that the person defamed is named. If the totality of the publication makes it possible to determine who the defamed person is, then this element is also satisfied. Finally, malice exists when the offender makes the defamatory statement with the knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

When committed through information and communication technologies, libel becomes cyber libel, which carries with it a higher penalty by one degree under Section 6 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Specifically, libel under the Revised Penal Code is punished with prision correccional in its minimum period, which is from six months and one day to two years and four months and medium period, which is from two years, four months and one day to four years and two months; or a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000 or both.

However, if it is cyber libel, the penalty is increased by one degree. Thus, the penalty is prision mayor in its minimum period, which is from six years and one day to eight years and medium period, which is from eight years and one day to 10 years.

In prosecuting the crime of libel or cyber libel, venue is jurisdictional. For ordinary libel, the venue, where the complainant is a private individual, is limited to only either of two places, namely: where the complainant actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense or where the alleged defamatory article was printed and first published.

However, for cyber libel, the place where the defamatory article was printed and first published is impossible to ascertain. It also cannot be where the defamatory online article was first accessed. In Bonifacio v. RTC Makati City, the SC said if it allows cyber libel to be filed where the article is first accessed, the author of the defamatory article may be sued anywhere in the Philippines. The private complainant can just allege that he accessed the defamatory online article in a far-flung place. For instance, a blogger in Manila who posts a defamatory article may then be sued in Ilocos Sur, where the offended party allegedly first accessed the article. To prevent this chaotic situation, the High Court effectively limited the venue to the place where the complainant actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense.

The Internet is a potent medium. If used for good, it can lead to boundless benefits to society. But if utilized for nefarious ends, the prejudice to the community is unimaginable. As Uncle Ben in Spider-Man said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The Internet has given us great power. May we use it responsibly for the good of humanity.

For comments and questions, please send email to cabdo@divinalaw.com