Sotto says online libel ensures accountabilityBy Jose Santino S. Bunachita
Cebu Daily News
The new cybercrime law doesn’t curtail press freedom; it just enforces accountability by online users.
This was Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III’s explanation yesterday about why online libel is included in Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Law of 2012.
He spoke at a forum on Political and Media Challenges in 2013 sponsored by The Freeman and Megaworld held at the Marcelo Fernan Cebu Press Center.
Sotto said it was “logical” to include libel as an online crime since libel is provided in the Revised Penal Code.
“The Senate, in its entirety, all agreed when I proposed the amendment to include this as a crime in the Revised Penal Code. It does not mean to curtail press freedom. No, it just levels the playing field,” Sotto said.
The senator said social media, including bloggers, should be covered by libel laws to remind them of the need for responsible use of freedom of expression.
“Anyone with access to the Internet can spread and share information with a single click. The problem is, you (the mainstream media) are responsible and have rules to follow. But currently, social media doesn’t,” Sotto said.
Sotto said libel laws should not pose any problem to responsible journalists and media organizations who are professionally trained and observe ethical standards.
While news reports are carefully edited before they are published, Sotto said online writers and bloggers can easily post information without verifying their data and are not accountable to anyone.
Sotto said he would be the first to oppose any measure to curtail press freedom because a free press is essential to a “vibrant democracy.”
“I guarantee you that I support moves to decriminalize libel, if only to promote a press that is free from harassment and intimidation. Unfortunately, our laws still treat libel as a criminal offense and not as a civil offense,” Sotto said.
Asked how he reconciles this stand with the inclusion of libel in the Cybercrime Prevention Law, Sotto said he favors removing only criminal liability and not civil sanctions for the offense (which means one can be sued for damages but not sent to jail.)
Sotto said the bill on the decriminalization of libel, which requires amending the Revised Penal Code, is likely to be passed in the next Congress.
“Right now, we would rather work on the FOI (Freedom of Information) bill. I support the FOI,” Sotto said.
In her blog, Raissa Robles earlier criticized Sotto’s insertion of online libel in the Cybercrime Prevention law, saying it lumped libel together with cybersex, child porn and advertising spam as major offenses.
She said the online libel provision has “no safeguards which the rich and the powerful can now use to chill critics.”
Sotto said contrary to reports that he sneaked it into the bill, the provision on online libel was discussed at the committee level last December and in January this year.
“Contrary to that, we discussed this in the last quarter of 2011. We passed the amendments in January 2012 long before the controversy over the Reproductive Health Bill occured,” Sotto said.
Asked if a public hearing was held that invited media outlets or bloggers to discuss the online libel provision, Sotto said “I think Sen. Ed Angara said there was.”
“But the period of amendments already expired which meant there was no more time for public hearings.”
Sotto earlier came under fire from the blogging community for allegedly plagiarizing an American blogger and a speech by the late US senator Robert Kennedy in his speeches opposing the RH bill, charges which he denied.
Sotto denied that he introduced the online libel provision in retaliation for this online criticism.
“As a public servant, we cannot be onion-skinned about criticisms by the press,” he said.
“I freely talk about those people writing about me, whether it is good or bad, and those who try to ruin my reputation and credibility instead of targeting my message. But reputation is the only thing we’ve got. So we should not allow just anyone to take it away from us,” he told the audience of students and media professionals.
The senator cited his family roots in Cebu and the Sotto Law or Republic Act No. 53 authored by his great grandfather, Sen. Vicente Sotto, as proof of his adherence to press freedom. Under RA 53, a journalist can’t be forced to reveal the source of his stories told to him in confidence.
“Together with Sen. Gregorio Honasan, who chairs the Senate committee on public information, we are expanding the coverage of the Sotto law which protects print media from disclosing their sources, to the broadcast media,” the senator said.
Tags: Cybercrime law