Sticks and Stones: Reining in Filipino Libel Laws

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Sticks and Stones: Reining in Filipino Libel Laws

A provision in the new anti-cybercrime bill is just the latest in a series of excessive libel laws.

The inclusion of online libel in the Philippine anti-cybercrime law has raised fears that it would lead to the restriction of free speech and expression in the local internet community. It’s one of the issues to be discussed next week by the Supreme Court, which is set to hear oral arguments in relation to more than a dozen petitions questioning the constitutionality of the controversial new law. Inevitably, lawyers will have to review the country’s libel law which is criticized by media groups as being too repressive and excessive. 

Under the country’s 83-year old Revised Penal Code, libel is a criminal offense that mandates a prison term of six months to six years and/or a fine of 200 to 6,000 pesos. But the fine could be much higher for arrested persons.

Veteran journalist Luis Teodoro noted that “the law against libel has primarily been used to suppress free expression rather than to address media abuse.” He could be referring to instances like the unprecedented 11 libel suits filed by the husband of former President Gloria Arroyo against 46 journalists, a move which was seen by many analysts as an attempt to stop the press from criticizing the Arroyo government.

But the libel laws can be used not just against hard-hitting journalists but also against crusading ordinary individuals. Human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno is worried that the “laws on criminal libel are so broad and sweeping that they make everyone involved in the delivery of public concern a potential criminal.” Diokno added that "the mere prospect of a criminal libel suit, even without actual prosecution and punishment, is itself abhorrent to individual human rights because of its inevitable chilling effect."

Indeed, even the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has described one author’s imprisonment under libel laws as “incompatible” with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory.

The proposal to decriminalize libel has been demanded by the media sector for many years already. Instead of criminal defamation, the media is proposing a broad campaign for public media literacy and self-regulation to check and expose media abuses. But instead of decriminalizing libel, the government decided to extend the scope of the outdated and nefarious libel laws to the internet sphere.

Perhaps journalists, netizens, and concerned citizens should closely work together for the repeal of the draconian anti-cybercrime law; and at the same time, push for the reform of the repressive libel laws. Because even if the anti-cybercrime law is declared unconstitutional by the high court, the libel laws are still effective which prevent the media and the public from disclosing all information and the truth about sensitive political issues that are essential in a democracy.

The anti-cybercrime law may be today’s worst threat to free speech and expression but the Philippine criminal libel law is the original sin which must be exorcised once and for all.