Published 22 January 2024, The Daily Tribune

Did the Cybercrime Prevention Act, or RA 10175, create a new crime of cyber libel, or is it the same old crime of libel under the Revised Penal Code with an entirely new mode of commission?

This question has baffled both pundits and members of the legal profession and even law students for years — and now it seems like the Supreme Court has finally put the question to rest.

Cyber libel is the public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice, or defect, tending to cause the dishonor of a person through the use of a computer system.

The crime of libel and its constitutionality have historically been contentious issues and frequent discussion points, as the crime is nested in a gray area involving the cherished right to expression and free speech. The dawn of the internet age and the rise of social media only fueled further discussions on this issue, as this only accommodated the greater facility of sharing one’s ideas, thoughts, musings, rage, and so on — for better or for worse.

The clamor on this issue seemingly reached its apex when Congress promulgated the Cybercrime Prevention Act, or RA 10175, in 2012, which introduced the concept of cyber libel to the Filipino social psyche. Petitions were then filed questioning the law’s constitutionality, partly insofar as it penalizes cyber libel and harps on its alleged “chilling effect.”

In Disini v. Secretary of Justice (G.R. No. 203335, 11 February 2014), the Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality, thereby legitimizing cyber libel within the sphere of Philippine criminal law.

A question remained — Did the law create a new crime of Cyber Libel, or is it the same form of libel under the Revised Penal Code?

The Supreme Court, though Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting, in the newly promulgated case of Causing v. People (G.R. No. 258524, 11 October 2023), ruled that Cyber Libel is no new crime. The crime under Section 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act merely implements the RPC’s provisions on Libel under Articles 353 and 355 of the law when those acts are committed through the computer system. Therefore, the prescriptive period of one year from the commission of the crime of libel under the Revised Penal Code similarly applies to cyber libel.

In so ruling, the Supreme Court offered a three-pronged justification.

First, the High Court ruled that, textually, Section 4(c)(4) of RA 10175 itself shows that the law did not intend to create a new crime but merely enforces the RPC provisions on libel. In fact, the Supreme Court pointed out that the Cybercrime Prevention Act itself refers to Art. 355 of the RPC, when defining the act sought to be punished by cyber libel.

Second, the Supreme Court ruled that even the landmark Disini case could not have been clearer when it ruled that cyber libel is not a new crime because Art. 353 of the RPC, in relation to Art. 355, already punishes the crime. The crimes are constituted by the same elements — only that RA 10175 recognizes a computer system as a “similar means” of publication. Far from penalizing a new crime altogether, RA 10175 only makes use of ICT in the commission of libel as a qualifying circumstance.

Lastly, the Court looked into the wisdom of the lawmakers and ruled that even Congress did not intend to create a new crime of cyber or online libel since libel itself is already defined under the Revised Penal Code. In crafting the Cybercrime Prevention Act, Congress already took note that the RPC is a very old law and could not have envisioned the existence of a computer system — much less expect the commission of libel through ICT.

Notably, Causing overturned Tolentino v. People (G.R. No. 240310 (Notice), 6 August 2018), where the Supreme Court applied Act 3326 and ruled that cyber libel prescribes in 12 years. Also, the Supreme Court adopted the discovery rule for the crime of libel, which reckons the one-year prescriptive period from the time of discovery and not the time of publication.

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