The crime of libel in the Philippines is defined and penalized under Article 353 (“Definition of Libel”), in relation to Article 355 (“Libel by means of writings or similar means”) of the Revised Penal Code (“RPC”). There was a debate whether the required “publication” in libel encompasses the internet, which was not yet in existence when the RPC was enacted. This debate has been laid to rest, with the enactment of Republic Act (“R.A.”) No. 10175, also known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. This article discusses the definition, elements/requisites and applicable penalties for online libel.
DEFINITION OF LIBEL
Criminal libel is defined as a public and malicious imputation of a crime or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.
THE CYBERCRIME PREVENTION ACT
The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 defines and penalizes cybercrimes, broken down into three main categories:
- (a) system-related offenses, i.e., illegal access, illegal interception, data interference, system interference, misuse of devices, and cyber-squatting;
- (b) computer-related offenses, i.e., forgery, fraud, and identity theft; and
- (c) content-related offenses, i.e., cybersex, child pornography, and libel.
It is interesting to note that the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of R.A. 10175 provides a different mode of classifying cybercrimes, as follows:
- (a) Cybercrime Offenses under Section 4, also referred to as “core cybercrime.” The IRR follows the classifications of “Cybercrime Offenses” under R.A. 10175, with the notable demotion of cyber-squatting, cybersex, and libel as “Other cybercrimes”.
- (b) Other Cybercrimes under Section 5: (a) cyber-squatting; (b) cybersex; (c) libel; and (d) other offenses, which area aiding/abetting in the commission of cybercrime, and attempt in the commission of cybercrime.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court’s Rule on Cybercrime Warrants classifies cybercrimes, for purposes of determining the venue, in this manner:
- (a) Cybercrime Offenses under Section 4 of R.A. 10175 and Other Offenses under Section 5 thereof; and
- (b) pursuant to Section 6 of R.A. 10175, all crimes defined and penalized in other laws, if committed by, through, and with the use of Information Communications Technology or ICT.
DEFINITION OF ONLINE LIBEL
As provided in Section 4(c)(4) of R.A. 10175, online libel is “[t]he unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” The crime is simply called “libel” under R.A. 10175.
To distinguish it from libel committed by traditional means, it is properly called “online libel” (although it is sometimes referred to as cyber-libel, internet libel, or electronic libel). Online libel was challenged as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, concluded that online libel under R.A. 10175 is valid and not unconstitutional, with the proviso that online libel does not cover those who simply receive the post and react to it (those who pressed Like, Comment and Share). However, if the “Comment” does not merely react to the original posting but creates an altogether new defamatory story, then that should be considered an original posting published on the internet.
SEPARATE CHARGES UNDER RPC AND R.A. 10175
The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 provides that a “prosecution under this Act shall be without prejudice to any liability for violation of any provision of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, or special laws” (Sec. 7). In a subsequent case, the Supreme Court stated that the determination of the applicability of Section 7 will be left to actual cases in the future.
The Supreme Court, however, declared that there can be no two prosecutions of libel under the RPC and online libel under R.A. 10175, for such constitutes a violation of the proscription against double jeopardy. When a published material on print, said to be libelous, is again posted online or vice versa, that identical material cannot be the subject of two separate charges for libel. The two offenses, one a violation of the RPC and the other a violation of R.A. 10175 involve essentially the same elements and are in fact one and the same offense. Online libel refers to the means of publication – through the computer system.
REQUISITES OF LIBEL
Online libel is simply libel, in its traditional sense, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future. In other words, the traditional elements or requisites of libel still apply. For an imputation to be libelous under Art. 353 of the RPC, the following requisites must be present: (a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable.
A fifth element or requisite is added under R.A. 10175 for online libel: the act must be committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.
FIRST REQUISITE: DEFAMATORY STATEMENT
An allegation is considered defamatory if it ascribes to a person the commission of a crime, the possession of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance which tends to dishonor or discredit or put him in contempt, or which tends to blacken the memory of one who is dead.
In determining whether a statement is defamatory, the words used are to be construed in their entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural, and ordinary meaning as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them, unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense.
Moreover, a charge is sufficient if the words are calculated to induce the hearers to suppose and understand that the person or persons against whom they were uttered were guilty of certain offenses or are sufficient to impeach the honesty, virtue or reputation or to hold the person or persons up to public ridicule.
SECOND REQUISITE: MALICE
Malice connotes ill will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed, and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm. Malice is bad faith or bad motive. It is the essence of the crime of libel.
Where the offended party is a private individual, the prosecution need not prove the presence of malice. The law explicitly presumes its existence (malice in law) from the defamatory character of the assailed statement. For his defense, the accused must show that he has a justifiable reason for the defamatory statement even if it was in fact true.
There is “actual malice” or malice in fact when the offender makes the defamatory statement with the knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. The reckless disregard standard used here requires a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the accused in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement he published. Gross or even extreme negligence is not sufficient to establish actual malice.
The prosecution bears the burden of proving the presence of actual malice in instances where such element is required to establish guilt. The defense of absence of actual malice, even when the statement turns out to be false, is available where the offended party is a public official or a public figure. Since the penal code and implicitly, the cybercrime law, mainly target libel against private persons, the Supreme Court recognizes that these laws imply a stricter standard of “malice” to convict the author of a defamatory statement where the offended party is a public figure. Society’s interest and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs.
THIRD REQUISITE: PUBLICATION
There is publication if the material is communicated to a third person. It is not required that the person defamed has read or heard about the libelous remark. What is material is that a third person has read or heard the libelous statement, for a man’s reputation is the estimate in which others hold him, not the good opinion which he has of himself.
Simply put, in libel, publication means making the defamatory matter, after it is written, known to someone other than the person against whom it has been written. The reason for this is that a communication of the defamatory matter to the person defamed cannot injure his reputation though it may wound his self-esteem. A man’s reputation is not the good opinion he has of himself, but the estimation in which others hold him.
FOURTH REQUISITE: IDENTIFIABILITY
On the other hand, to satisfy the element of identifiability, it must be shown that at least a third person or a stranger was able to identify him as the object of the defamatory statement. It is enough if by intrinsic reference the allusion is apparent or if the publication contains matters of description or reference to facts and circumstances from which others reading the article may know the person alluded to; or if the latter is pointed out by extraneous circumstances so that those knowing such person could and did understand that he was the person referred to.
For the purpose of determining the meaning of any publication alleged to be libelous “that construction must be adopted which will give to the matter such a meaning as is natural and obvious in the plain and ordinary sense in which the public would naturally understand what was uttered. The published matter alleged to be libelous must be construed as a whole. In applying these rules to the language of an alleged libel, the court will disregard any subtle or ingenious explanation offered by the publisher on being called to account. The whole question being the effect the publication had upon the minds of the readers, and they not having been assisted by the offered explanation in reading the article, it comes too late to have the effect of removing the sting, if any there be, from the word used in the publication.
FIFTH REQUISITE: USE OF COMPUTER SYSTEM
As noted above, the cybercrime commonly called online libel, in its traditional sense, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.
A “computer system” is defined in R.A. 10175 as “any device or group of interconnected or related devices, one or more of which, pursuant to a program, performs automated processing of data. It covers any type of device with data processing capabilities including, but not limited to, computers and mobile phones. The device consisting of hardware and software may include input, output and storage components which may stand alone or be connected in a network or other similar devices. It also includes computer data storage devices or media.” The Rule on Cybercrime Warrants has a shorter definition: A computer system refers to any device or group of interconnected or related devices, one or more of which, pursuant to a program, performs automated processing of data.
APPLICATION OF PENALTY
The Supreme Court has affirmed the policy contained in its Administrative Circular No. 08-08, which provides for guidelines in the imposition of penalties in libel cases. It provides:
- 1. This Administrative Circular does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime of libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code;
- 2. The Judges concerned may, in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperatives of justice;
- 3. Should only a fine be imposed and the accused be unable to pay the fine, there is no legal obstacle to the application of the Revised Penal Code provisions on subsidiary imprisonment.
The Supreme Court clarified that the Circular does not remove the discretion of courts to sentence to imprisonment the accused in libel cases should the circumstances warrant. In other words, judicial policy states a fine alone is generally acceptable as a penalty for libel. Nevertheless, the courts may impose imprisonment as a penalty if, under the circumstances, a fine is insufficient to meet the demands of substantial justice or would depreciate the seriousness of the offense.
[See court Decision in the online libel case against Maria Ressa and Rappler. Sources/Quotes: Manila Bulletin Publishing Corporation vs. Domingo, G.R. No. 170341, 5 July 2017; Disini vs. Secretary of Justice, G.R. No. 203335, 11 February 2014; Punongbayan-Visitacion vs. People, G.R. No. 194214, 10 January 2018]