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Free speech and cyber-libel

MANILA, Philippines - Libel has gone a long way. During the age of Julius Caesar in Rome, libel was committed by a man if he started shouting at the top of his lungs in a public place certain profanities against a specific person. Now, with the Philippines’ newly-minted Cybercrime Prevention Act, a quick click of a mouse button — if it affects the powerful who deem themselves immune to public scrutiny — could land someone in jail.

In a country where being online is slowly becoming a part of life’s routine, the criminalization of the so-called cyber-libel has turned majority of the citizenry into criminals. The act of “cyber libel,” as defined in the law, is simply too easy to commit. It opens Facebook, Twitter, and blog users up to lawsuits just for posting, sharing, or “liking” possibly offensive material.

Now, before the law does any damage to anybody, all its supposed illegalities have been brought before the Supreme Court for it to decide, hopefully with certainty, whether or not the Filipinos deserve to continue enjoying free cyber-speech. But lawmakers should realize that habits and culture formed by several years of unguarded social media use cannot be simply undone by legislation — least of which, legislation that is so repulsive to freedoms of the democracy we are so proud of.

Some lawmakers point to the excesses of the Internet. Fairly or unfairly, they cry “cyberbullying” when public opinion drifts against them. And ineed, at times, social media memes can be mean, degrading, and offensive. But a close look at these supposedly libellous memes reveals their noble motivations — to bring to fore certain issues that society should be discussing, such as the right to be informed, artistic freedom, plagiarism, or abuses committed against citizens, and, say, traffic enforcers.

Welcome scrutiny

The public is no longer beholden to traditional media and can form opinions of their own, and personalities behind these issues should welcome such scrutiny, not outlaw it. They are, after all, expected to maintain respectable public images, and must be accountable for actions they commit.

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In a way, the sudden power the public has garnered because of the freedoms provided by the Internet is essential to the country’s democratic maturity. The dangers of such power are negated by the Internet itself. Unlike print media where publication is limited and expensive, the Internet provides anybody unlimited opportunities to defend oneself in the same venue. Simply put, if one feels a tweet has maligned him, then one can and should tweet back. To sue for cyber-libel is only excessive and expensive, which perhaps reveals the law’s true intention: to be a means for the the powers-that-be to enforce the status quo.

Should the Supreme Court maintain that the cyber-libel law is legally sound, there is a great possibility that voices online will only get louder. Stupidity committed by leaders in the hallowed chambers of government will still be met with rabid derision in the excited and exciting walls of Facebook and Twitter. The gods of technology have given the people the most effective way of taking part, even indirectly, in forming national policy. Any leader, even a supposedly benevolent one, cannot simply take it away and expect quietude.

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Tweet the author @oggsmoggs.

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