OPINION: The Issue of Prescription on Cyberlibel

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PRESCRIPTION CYBERLIBEL ATTY OLIVER YUAN
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by Atty. Oliver S. Yuan | OPINION: The Issue of Prescription on Cyberlibel | Lawyers have different views on the issue of prescription of cyberlibel. This was triggered by the court’s decision to convict Maria Ressa of Rappler for the crime of cyberlibel.

FIRST POINT OF VIEW:

There are lawyers saying that Maria Ressa should have been acquitted because the filing of the case has already prescribed. According to them, it was a non-case from the very beginning. They support their argument with the case of Disini et. al. versus Secretary of Justice et. al., G.R. No. 203335 – 203518, February 11, 2014, wherein the Supreme Court states that, to wit:

“The Court agrees with the Solicitor General that libel is not a constitutionally protected speech and that the government has an obligation to protect private individuals from defamation. Indeed, cyberlibel is actually not a new crime since Article 353, in relation to Article 355 of the penal code, already punishes it. In effect, Section 4(c)(4) above merely affirms that online defamation constitutes “similar means” for committing libel.”

They argued that since cyberlibel is not a new crime, then the one-year prescriptive period, provided under Article 90 of the Revised Penal Code, applies to it. There was also a lawyer whose view is that R.A. 10175 serves as a qualifying circumstance hence, persons committing cyberlibel should be charged and prosecuted under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code.

SECOND POINT OF VIEW:

On the other hand, there are lawyers, including the RTC judge who sentenced Maria Ressa of being guilty, beyond reasonable doubt, for the crime of cyberlibel, opine that it has not yet prescribed and Article 90 of the Revised Penal Code should not be the basis of prescription for cyberlibel. In the Rappler case, the court said that, to wit:

“As above-discussed, republication is present in this case, thus, the reckoning period for the determination whether the offense already prescribed or not is on the date of the republication which is 19 February 2014.

The Supreme Court already ruled in the case of Panaguiton, Jr. v. Department of Justice that Act No. 3326 applies to offenses punishable by special laws which do not provide for their own prescriptive periods, to wit:

“There is no question that Act No. 3326, appropriately entitled An Act to Establish Prescription for Violations of Special Acts and Municipal Ordinances and to Provide When Prescription Shall Begin, is the law applicable to offenses under special laws which do not provide their own prescriptive periods.”

A painstaking review of R.A. 10175 reveals that it does not provide for its own prescriptive period, thus the provisions of Act No. 3326 is controlling. Section 1 of the same provides that:

“SECTION 1. Violations penalized by special acts shall, unless otherwise provided in such acts, prescribe in accordance with the following rules: (a) after a year for offences punished only by a fine or by imprisonment for not more than one month, or both; (b) after four years for those punished by imprisonment for more than one month, but less than two years; (c) after eight years for those punished by imprisonment for two years or more, but less than six years; and (d) after twelve years for any other offence punished by imprisonment for six years or more, except the crime of treason, which shall prescribe after twenty years. Violations penalized by municipal ordinances shall prescribe after two months.”

Since R.A. 10175 did not specifically provide for a penalty for cyberlibel, the penalty under Section 6 of said act must be referred to which is one degree higher than that prescribed under the Revised Penal Code for ordinary libel as provided under the above-mentioned provision which states, to wit:

“SECTION 6. All crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by the relevant provisions of this Act. Provided, That the penalty to be imposed shall be one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, as the case may be.”

Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code provides for the imposable penalty for libel.

“Art. 355. Libel by means of writing or similar means. — xxx”

As validated by the Implementing Rules and Regulations of R.A. 10175, the penalty for cyberlibel is prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period, as quoted hereunder:

“Libel — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel, as defined xxx”

Considering that prision correccional in its maximum period and prision mayor in its minimum period is 4 years, 2 months and 1 day to 8 years, the offense shall prescribe after TWELVE (12) YEARS following the provision of section 1 of Act No. 3326.

The instant case (Rappler Case) was filed in Court on 5 February 2019, which is well within the period of twelve (12) years and clearly, prescription has not yet set in.

It is worth stressing that this case is one for Cyberlibel punished under Section 4(c)(4) of R.A. 10175, an offense separate and distinct from the ordinary libel punished under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code. R.A. 10175 provides for a higher and distinct penalty as well. And precisely because a higher penalty is prescribed, cyberlibel is considered a more serious offense than ordinary libel. Thus the one-year prescriptive period for ordinary libel does not apply. The only reference made by R.A. 10175 to the Revised Penal Code is insofar as the elements of libel are concerned.”

MY TAKE ON THE MATTER:

I have to respect both views. I cannot say that the first point of view is wrong since it is true that the Supreme Court has stated in the case of Disini et. al. versus Secretary of Justice et. al. that cyberlibel is actually not a new crime since Article 353, in relation to Article 355 of the penal code, already punishes it. In effect, Section 4(c)(4) above merely affirms that online defamation constitutes “similar means” for committing libel. However, it also a reality that the decisions of the Supreme Court also change in the course of time. While I respect the first point of view, the ruling of the judge in the Rappler case must also be given credence. This is how I will argue in favor of the second point of view.

Given that cyberlibel, under R.A. 10175, is not a new crime, can we squarely say that it has no difference with libel under the Revised Penal Code? Definitely not. I respectfully disagree that Section 4(c)(4) merely affirms that online defamation constitutes “similar means” for committing libel because it actually provided a “different means” of committing cyberlibel. If we say that it affirms, it means that cyberlibel under R.A. 10175 and libel under RPC would exactly be the same. Apparently, they are not the same. There are similarities, insofar as the elements of the crime are concerned, except for the way the two crimes are committed. Otherwise, Section 4(c)(4) would have been useless. One of the reasons why Section 4(c)(4) was included in R.A. 10175 is to provide the means for charging or prosecuting libelous acts committed through the use of computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

There is a need for Section 4(c)(4) because prior to it, we cannot charge libelous acts committed through the use of internet, social media and the likes. Prior to R.A. 10175, Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code is inadequate to charge or prosecute libelous acts committed by means of the internet or the cyberspace because the said means is not among those enumerated under Article 355 of the RPC. Again, while cyberlibel, under R.A. 10175, is not a new crime, what law governs cyberlibel? Is it the Revised Penal Code or R.A. 10175? It is R.A. 10175 because it is the law that states that cyberlibel is committed through the use of computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future, and not the Revised Penal Code. Are the penalties of cyberlibel and libel the same? The answer is no because cyberlibel is one degree higher than ordinary libel.

What law governs the penalty of cyberlibel, is it the Revised Penal Code or R.A. 10175? It is R.A. 10175 because if we use the Revised Penal Code, then the penalty for cyberlibel and libel would be the same. Cyberlibel may not be a new crime but it is clear that the two offenses are governed by different laws. The means of committing libel and its penalty are governed by the Revised Penal Code. On the other hand, the means of committing cyberlibel and its penalty are governed by R.A. 10175. Now, since cyberlibel is governed by R.A. 10175, and said law being a special penal law, without providing prescription, therefore, Section 1 of Act No. 3326 is controlling and applicable. The RTC judge who sentenced Maria Ressa may also be correct. To reiterate, cyberlibel may not be a new crime but still, it is governed by the special law, R.A. 10175, and not by the Revised Penal Code.

I am not saying that my view is perfectly correct, but this is my stand on the matter, and at least I made a stand, as a lawyer. I am sure that this article will be criticized by opposing views, especially from the supporters of Rappler. I welcome opposing legal points of view. I welcome any contra-opinion from my brother-lawyers. Let me just clarify that I wrote this article not to share my political point of view. I do not hate Maria Ressa or Rappler. I am also not a staunch supporter of the government. This is only for intelligent discussion and to impart knowledge to non-lawyers.

Atty. Oliver S. Yuan

About The Author

Atty. Oliver S. Yuan is a seasoned Trial and Corporate Lawyer, with a banking background. He has worked in the banking industry before for 13 years. For queries, his email address is [email protected]

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