Wednesday, October 3

Today is the Day Freedom Died

image courtesy of stock.xchng

As if to commiserate, the weather is downcast and drizzly.

Déjà Vu

In January this year, I wrote an article against SOPA and PIPA. These are the names of two bills previously considered in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Here’s the link to that post:

As you might know, protests were mounted all over the States, both online and offline, to ward off the threat against freedom of expression. Online, websites such as Wikipedia and search engines such as Google coordinated a service blackout. Their site logos were blindfolded with the banner: STOP CENSORSHIP.

Over 160 million people saw Wikipedia’s stand against censorship. And over 115 thousand sites followed suit.

Petitions reached the White House from more than 100, 000 people.

In the end, the House Judiciary Committee decided to postpone plans to draft the bill and the White House announced:

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”  

Freedom triumphs! Yay!!

Déjà Vu of Déjà Vu

Fast forward 9 months back to the future.

Never have I imagined that I’d be writing another article about exactly the same topic today, and in the land of so many freedom-lovers, the Philippines. 

Many foreigners know at least one part of Philippine history: the People Power Revolution. Back in 1986, it was called “the revolution that surprised the world.” Over 2 million Filipinos took to the streets to protest against the 20-year authoritarian, repressive regime of then President Ferdinand Marcos. Peaceful protests of rosaries, flowers, and yellow ribbons standing fast against guns, tanks, and helicopters were witnessed along the historical stretch of EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue). The streets erupted in celebration when the dictator fled to Hawaii, where he was granted safe passage by the US government.

photo by Joey de Vera

So it is with a lot of irony now that Filipinos are looking back at their past in light of recent events.

The Internet Now

The Internet has long been a cradle of innovation, of not only technology but also ideas. It is a hive where more than 2 billion users from all over the planet meet to open and discuss issues, to reach out and build social relationships and organizations; to share and to exchange; to contribute and to gain.

Of course the Internet is far from perfect. In its omnipresence, it is often a crucible of debate and conflict. It is a world where victim and abuser meet; geeks and bullies; savants and jesters. It is from this seemingly untamable environment that Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was born, a controversial piece of Philippine legislation that has recently become a law.

It has been called by many names, the most resounding of which is “Cyber Martial Law,” describing its blatant disregard for privacy and freedom of expression.

Netizens -- website owners, freelance writers, and general social media users alike -- have all expressed their dissent in the form of street protests, hacking and blackouts.

Photo by Purple Romero

October 2, the eve of the realization of the law, was called “Black Tuesday,” when people started replacing their profiles on Facebook and Twitter with plain black images.

Status updates also read like mouths gagged with black horizontal bars followed by the words: “[status update blocked.] (by RA. 10175)

The Bitter Pill

Without a doubt, there are elements of the law that are sound, especially its main goal of combatting online crime like child pornography and identity theft.

But like with most things that appear good, the signee had better read the fine print first.

One of the provisions in the law that has received the most criticism is the online libel clause.

Indeed it isn’t a thing that one can overlook. As most media practitioners know, laws against libel have most often been used by those in power to harass journalists and to put a muzzle on criticism.

And in a land whose government is riddled with corruption, every individual’s ability to express their views on the deeds of public officials will be greatly hampered.

There is a lot packed in one of the catchphrases doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook:

One man’s ego was bruised and every Filipino has to suffer.

authored by one anonymous individual.

Indeed, the law isn’t a small thing to shrug off:

  • A conviction of libel carries the maximum punishment of 12 years imprisonment and 1 million pesos ($24, 000) in fines. The minimum punishment has been raised twelve-fold, from 6 months to 6 years!        

  • Section 15 (e) of the Cybercrime Law also empowers law-enforcers to “render inaccessible or remove those computer data in the accessed computer or computer and communications network.”         

  • Section 17 covers Destruction of Computer Data: “Upon expiration of the periods as provided in Sections 13 and 15, service providers and law enforcement authorities, as the case may be, shall immediately and completely destroy the computer data subject of a preservation and examination."         

    • Those who play a part in unwittingly or willfully encouraging the spread of libelous content shall be charged for abetting libel.

    The last can encompass even the act of pressing “Like” and “Follow” in Facebook and Twitter respectively.

    These are only a few of the contentions being raised against the new law. Thus far, the Office of the President has responded to the people’s voices with the words: “Freedom comes with responsibility.”

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    It is quite unavoidable for people to see the irony of the whole, and to point out contradictions in society.  The main characters of People Power in 1986, about a quarter of a century ago, who helped topple Martial Law and bring back democracy to the country, they are the parents of the current President.

    Now, in the pages of history and in the eyes of his countrymen and the world, the President’s name has been associated with a law that was dubbed “Cyber Martial Law.

    More interestingly, another piece of legislation, the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill, has been lingering in Congress for the past 14 years. It provides for medically safe, legal, accessible, affordable and effective reproductive health care services nationwideandage-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education.” On the other hand, the Cybercrime bill passed the House of Representatives in May and was signed by the President on September 12th.

    (emphases mine)

    “One of the worst things about the law is the libel clause, coupled with the lack of due process, it is a clear violation of our civil rights. Anyone is vulnerable to what the government considers libelous and having your website taken down, or worse, arrested for it speaks of Aquino’s commitment to worsen his human rights record”
    -- Pauline Gidget Estella, national president of the College Editors' Guild of the Philippines (CEGP).

    “We went back to dark ages after claiming that the law was made to strengthen libel by elevating this online.”

    “[The provisions] restrict the fundamental right to free speech and the freedom of the press with respect to online content in the same way a totalitarian state would do so — through unrestricted and unregulated censorship.”
                    -- Jose Cabrera, vice president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP)

    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.”

                  -- Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia  


    “States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”

                    UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34 (2011)

    No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances."

    -- Article 3, Section 4 of The Philippine Constitution

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