‘Today it might be complaints for cyber libel, but tomorrow it can be something else—like extrajudicial warrantless arrests under the impending Anti-Terrorism law.’
YESTERDAY, Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. were convicted by the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 under Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa for the crime of cyber libel.
While Ressa and Santos both have the right to appeal and to post bail pending the resolution of their case with the higher court, the impact of the conviction is farreaching and is expected to cause that dreaded chilling effect not just on journalists but on everyone who posts an opinion online.
Why me, you may ask?
Have a little patience while we go down this rabbit hole; it’s quite important that we understand it clearly. Cyber libel is punishable as an offense under Republic Act 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which was signed into law on September 12, 2012. The complaint, filed in 2017, was brought forth by one Wilfredo Keng and is rooted in an article published online by Rappler back in May 2012, a full four months before cyber libel became a criminal offense.
This is where the prohibition against ex post facto laws come in, as contained in Article III, Section 22 of the 1987 Constitution: “No ex post facto law or bill of attainder shall be enacted.” This means that criminal laws can only be applied to offenses committed after the passage of a law defining the act as a crime, and not to acts committed before. In other words, Juan cannot be jailed for borrowing his neighbor’s carabao on Monday if the law prohibiting the borrowing of carabaos was passed the day after.
So essentially—Ressa and Santos were convicted for a crime that didn’t exist yet, when that supposedly cyberlibelous (if there is even such a word) article was published. The premise that the article was updated in 2014 (to fix a typo, I am told) so as to bring it under the coverage of the Cybercrime Act is grossly, grossly overstretched.
I am hoping that this decision will be overturned on appeal, not just to get an acquittal for Ressa and Santos, but to stop from opening the flood gates of similar complaints that will target not just journalists but the populace in general. Imagine getting hailed to Court for ex post facto complaints—this is a dangerous weapon that may not be wielded against unsuspecting citizens by bad faith actors.
Today it might be complaints for cyber libel, but tomorrow it can be something else—like extra judicial warrantless arrests under the impending Anti-Terrorism law. Fanatics will say that this is an overreaction, but given how we have seen how the justice system can be used to oppress the poor, the marginalized, and those against the administration, it is certainly not a figment of our imagination.