Only author of defamatory post criminally liable for cyberlibel

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Persida Acosta

Persida Acosta

Dear PAO,
Can a person who merely “liked” or “commented” on an allegedly defamatory Facebook post be charged for libel?
Mandy

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Dear Mandy,
Libel is a crime that is punished under our laws. It is defined as “public and 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” (Article 353, Revised Penal Code). If it is committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition or any similar means, the penalty imposed is prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party (Article 355, Revised Penal Code).

It is worth noting that our laws have evolved to meet demands of changing times. For instance, Republic Act (RA) 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, was passed into law to meet developments brought about by technology, particularly the Internet and cyberspace.

Section 4 (c) (4) of RA 10175 penalizes “cyberlibel.” As provided therein: “The following acts constitute the offense of cybercrime punishable under this Act: x x x (c) Content-related Offenses: x x x(4) Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” Accordingly, defamatory imputations done through the Internet, such as Facebook posts, may result in penal sanctions.

It must be emphasized, however, that the person who may be held criminally liable for “cyberlibel” is only the author of the defamatory imputation, not those who may have “liked” or “commented” on or even shared a post. While Section 5 (a) of RA 10175 imposes liability on those who willfully abets or aids in the commission of any of the offenses enumerated under this law, such provision was rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court insofar as it is to be correlated to Section 4 (c) (4) of the abovementioned law. The court ruled in the case of Jose Jesus M. Disini Jr. et al. vs. The Secretary of Justice et al., G.R. No. 203335, February 11, 2014, that:

“x x x Indeed, cyberlibel is actually not a new crime since Article 353, in relation to Article 355 of the penal code, already punishes it. In effect, Section 4(c)(4) above merely affirms that online defamation constitutes “similar means” for committing libel. x x x

But the court’s acquiescence goes only insofar as the cybercrime law penalizes the author of the libelous statement or article. Cyberlibel brings with it certain intricacies, unheard of when the penal code provisions on libel were enacted. The culture associated with Internet media is distinct from that of print. x x x

Section 5 with respect to Section 4(c)(4) is unconstitutional. Its vagueness raises apprehension on the part of Internet users because of its obvious chilling effect on the freedom of expression, especially since the crime of aiding or abetting ensnares all the actors in the cyberspace front in a fuzzy way. What is more, as the petitioners point out, formal crimes such as libel are not punishable unless consummated. In the absence of legislation tracing the interaction of netizens and their level of responsibility such as in other countries, Section 5, in relation to Section 4(c)(4) on Libel, Section 4(c)(3) on Unsolicited Commercial Communications, and Section 4(c)(2) on Child Pornography, cannot stand scrutiny. x x x”

Nevertheless, it should be stressed that if the “comment” made on an original post does not only serve as a reaction but creates an altogether new defamatory story, then that will be considered as an original posting published on the Internet by its creator and may be penalized accordingly (G.R. No. 203335, February 11, 2014).

We hope that we were able to answer your queries. Please be reminded that this advice is based solely on the facts you have narrated and our appreciation of the same. Our opinion may vary when other facts are changed or elaborated.

Editor’s note: Dear PAO is a daily column of the Public Attorney’s Office. Questions for Chief Acosta may be sent to dearpao@manilatimes.net

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