Let’s unite to decriminalize libel

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It was with interest that I sat and listened to the proceedings of the Senate Hearing on the Cybercrime Law (via live streaming on the Senate website) on March 3, the first of a series of public hearings according to Senator Ralph Recto, who heads the Senate Committee on Science and Technology.

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I listened with interest, not just because the invited guests were familiar names and faces, but also because I wanted to hear about cyberlibel – and in effect libel – as the central issue that I thought we were all united about.

Alas, I thought wrong.

The question of responsibility
The first day of those public hearings was a grand display of the diverse perspectives on the Cybercime Law’s provisions, which is fine. But I expected a stronger stand against cyberlibel, the kind that will level up the discussion and work with the issues that have since been raised about free speech and the Internet.

Because while we would like to think that we are all on the same page about libel and cyberlibel, it is in fact difficult to ignore the voice that asks: Why not do it right? Why not use the Internet better? Why can’t we all be more responsible?

Also the assertion: If print media can be charged with libel, those on the Internet should be, too!

And this is the thing about freedom, we all want it and we will demand for it, as we all should. But I tend to think that in this fight against the cybercrime law and cyberlibel, what we must acknowledge as well is how many of those who are online do stoop down to the level of name-calling, and baseless and mean opinion.

In this fight against cyberlibel, statements that point to absolute freedom of expression need to happen with a very clear admission of guilt and responsibility. Of guilt because Pinoy online culture can be most offensive, most defamatory, most hurtful; of responsibility because as we demand for our freedoms we also should be able to promise to do better, to police our own ranks, even if all it means is to speak to our Facebook friends when their statuses and tweets are too much.

Divided we fail
But few talked about the Internet and responsibility in that stretch of time that I caught bloggers and online media reading their statements in front of the senators. Little time was spent discussing libel and cyberlibel, and the statements and questions that have been raised about it.

This is the thing: we need to make a distinction between mainstream media and the threat of libel against its members, and the Internet and social media and cyberlibel. In print and on television, opinion and news reports go through a screening process that makes editors and publishers of information responsible for any story that is released to a public. This is the system that has libel hanging over its head, and they are generally unafraid: after all three pairs of eyes means three layers of editing.

This is what the Internet and social media as a system does not have. Here, we are not talking about media organizations that are online, as we are in fact talking about individuals who are on their Facebook and Twitter and WordPress accounts, shooting from the hip and spewing opinion, no matter how vile and baseless. It is something the Internet and social media allow, and with this kind of freedom, irresponsible opinion-making is expected.

And here is what I’ve been missing in the discussions about cyberlibel and Internet freedom: none of us are promising to police our own ranks, none of us are saying that many actually do wrong on the Internet and social media, and none of us are taking responsibility for having watched and let that happen. At the same time that we all agree that freedom of speech is of utmost importance, we must also all agree that there is a need for responsibility.

A task at a time
Of course this doesn’t erase the fact that libel, whether in print or online, has a chilling effect. And it is the scariest thing because this government has proven most sensitive and defensive when it comes to criticism.

Yet, the scarier thing for me is the distinct possibility that we will miss the bus on this fight against libel and cyberlibel, precisely because we are too busy looking at the various elements of the Cybercrime Law. Because we are being told that a majority of senators are already on our side and pushing for the decriminalization of libel, and yet at the Senate hearing, the concerns lacked focus.

Why can’t we first focus all our energies on cyberlibel and libel in general? Why can’t we unite with mainstream media practitioners and organizations to raise the volume on the call to decriminalize all forms of libel? Why can’t we unite on the fact of irresponsibility online, and start defining a real and relevant ethics for those who engage with others on the Internet?

It is a common, loud enough, voice that will get us heard, and with the Senate on our side, the decriminalization of all forms of libel is within reach. Why can’t we win that fight, before moving on to the next section in the Cybercrime Law? With too many things happening in our nation maybe tunnel vision is what it takes to win at anything at all.

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