In Defense of the Status Quo
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz
Libel has gone a long way in its commission. During the age of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship in Rome, libel is committed by a man if he starts shouting at the top of his lungs in a public place certain profanities against a specific person. Now, specifically in the Philippines, where some sort of dictatorship is absentmindedly being formed by the powerful who deem themselves immune to public scrutiny, a quick flick of the pointer finger against the overly eager button of a mouse, which would then result in either a “share” or a “like” of a possibly offensive material is either an act of libel or an act of aiding the commission of the act of libel.
In a country where being online is slowly becoming a part of life’s routine, especially since families are now scattered all over the globe and the internet has turned into the most cost-efficient of keeping in touch, the criminalization of the so-called cyber-libel has not effectively lessened its commission by the citizenry, it only turned majority of the citizenry into criminals. It is simply too easy to commit. The habits and culture formed by several years of unguarded internet and social network usage cannot be simply undone by an edict that is questionable precisely because it is so repulsive to freedoms that should be part and parcel of the democracy we are so proud of.
If one examines all the victims of the onslaught of possible libellous remarks spread over the many social networking sites available, they are all personalities whose actions only brought to the fore certain issues that society should be discussing, like the right to be informed, artistic freedom, plagiarism, or abuses committed against traffic enforcers. Filipinos, being perpetually attracted to both fad and intrigue, have become drawn to the issues that are innately intertwined with the individuals’ sudden fame. To those who are required to maintain a respectable public image, they become accountable to actions they commit because the public is no longer beholden to traditional media and can form opinions of their own.
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 wherein the subject of the alleged libel has no other recourse to defend himself except through the courts since publication is limited and expensive, the internet provides anybody unlimited opportunities to defend oneself in the same venue. Simply put, the Filipinos who are responsible for the dissemination of those overly creative and imaginative critiques and expositions of societal ills brought about by specific individuals’ actions or inactions are the same ones who actively initiate relief and rescue drives during calamities. They do not take Constitutionally-mandated rights lightly and will exercise them to their full extent.
Should the Supreme Court maintain that the cyber-libel law is legally sound, there is a great possibility that nothing will change. 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. When the gods of technology have finally given the people the most effective way of taking part, even indirectly, in forming national policy, a supposedly benevolent leader cannot simply take it away and expect quietude.
(Edited and published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 29 September2012 as "Of Free Speech and Cyber-Libel.)