(New York) – A new Philippine “cybercrime” law drastically increases punishments for criminal libel and gives authorities excessive and unchecked powers to shut down websites and monitor online information, Human Rights Watch said today. President Benigno Aquino III signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 into law on September 12, 2012.
The law’s criminal penalties for online libel and other restrictions are a serious threat to free expression in the Philippines. Several legal cases have been filed in the Philippines Supreme Court, including for the law to be declared unconstitutional because it violates guarantees to free expression contained in the Philippines constitution and human rights treaties ratified by the Philippines.
“The cybercrime law needs to be repealed or replaced,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.”
The new law defines several new acts of “cybercrime.” Among the acts prohibited are “cybersex,” online child pornography, illegal access to computer systems or hacking, online identity theft, and spamming.
A section on libel specifies that criminal libel, already detailed in article 355 of the Philippines Revised Penal Code, will now apply to acts “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” The new law drastically increases the penalty for computer-related libel, with the minimum punishment raised twelve-fold, from six months to six years. The maximum punishment is doubled from six to twelve years in prison.
“Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader – including government officials – bring a libel charge,” Adams said. “Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Philippines government to repeal its existing criminal libel law. The Aquino administration has shown little inclination to support legislation pending in the Philippine Congress to decriminalize libel.
Aside from the section on libel, the new law has a provision that grants new powers to the Department of Justice, which on its own and without a warrant, can order the shutdown of any website it finds violating the law. It also authorizes police to collect computer data in real time without a court order or warrant.
The use of criminal defamation laws also has a chilling effect on the speech of others, particularly those involved with similar issues.
When citizens face prison time for complaining about official performance, corruption, or abusive business practices, other people take notice and are less likely to draw attention to such problems themselves, undermining effective governance and civil society.
Several journalists in the Philippines have been imprisoned for libel in recent years, leaving a blot on the country’s record on press freedom. In the case of Davao City radio journalist Alexander Adonis, who was convicted in 2007 of libel and spent two years in prison, the United Nations Human Rights Committee determined that the Philippine government violated article 19 on the right to freedom of expression and opinion of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee called on the Philippine government to decriminalize libel.
“So long as it stands, the new cybercrime law will have a chilling effect over the entire Philippine online community,” Adams said.