House shelves debates on repeal of online libel

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The House of Representatives has shelved the hearings on proposed measures repealing the online libel provision of the Anti-Cybercrime law, a House leader announced Friday.

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House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales 2nd of Mandaluyong was referring to the measures filed by party-list Reps. Antonio Tinio of Alliance of Concerned Teachers (House Bill 466) and Ibarra Gutierrez of Akbayan (House Bill 3589).

The Anti-Cybercrime law, whose legality was affirmed by the Supreme Court (SC) this week, provides that a criticism posted in online social networking sites can be deemed libelous and send someone to jail for six to 12 years—a penalty one level higher than what is provided for libel under the Revised Penal Code which only provides for a maximum four year-long jail time.

“They are not in the targets until next month,” Gonzales said.

Petitioners against the legality of the Anti-Cybercrime law, which include the Makabayan bloc that groups lawmakers from party-list groups Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Kabataan, Anakpawis and Alliance of Concerned Teachers, has dubbed the measure as electronic Martial Law which is a period in history when the people’s dissent against the government, regardless if these are factual, cannot be published and violators are imprisoned, if not killed.

Rep. Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna party-list then stressed that pending measures against the online libel removes redundancy in the scheme of things, considering that people who commit libel, including online libel or cyberbullying, are already liable under the existing Civil Code.

“The only purpose of the government in imposing the Cybercrime Law is to muzzle press freedom and people who criticize the government for corruption and incompetence. Discussions on measures repealing online libel should be fast tracked since this provision is a big threat to people’s right to freedom of expression,” Colmenares argued.

“I likewise urge my colleagues in Congress to tackle this bill and work for its swift and immediate passage. It is clear that there is a widespread public clamor against this impending restriction on free speech, and we must respond to it decisively,” Colmenares added.

Gutierrez echoed Colmenares’ alarm, saying that the SC decision upholding the provision on online libel has opened the floodgates for possible criminal actions against citizens who make statements made in social media and other online fora.

“This is an unprecedented and unwelcome expansion of previous libel laws into what was once a free and open space for discussion, and constitutes a dangerous move towards a more restrictive regime,” Gutierrez, a lawyer like Colmenares, said in a separate statement.

“The Internet is currently one of the freest and most open platforms accessible to people regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity and political or religious affiliations. As such, it is a space that must be assiduously protected, not invaded by unreasonable and unwarranted regulation,” Gutierrez added.

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