The first shot has been fired in favor of R.A. 10175, also known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Up north, in Cagayan, Gonzaga Mayor Carlito Pentecostes Jr filed a libel suit against anti-mining advocate Esperlita Garcia. The libel suit stemmed from a post by Garcia in Facebook, wherein, according to a GMA news report, "Garcia claimed that an anti-mining rally was canceled last year after Pentecostes harassed activists." From the Inquirer report by Melvin Gascon, Garcia "was merely giving a factual account of what had transpired during the rally where she quoted the mayor before demonstrators at St. Anthony Academy in Gonzaga."
Aparri Regional Trial Court Judge Conrado Tabaco issued a warrant of arrest for Garcia, who was then arrested by National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents last Thursday, and detained overnight. She was able to post bail the next day.
What's alarming about this case is that Judge Tabaco may have ordered the arrest of Garcia on the strength of R.A. 10175, even though the Supreme Court issued a 120-day temporary restraining order (TRO) on the implementation of the law. The provision on libel in the Revised Penal Code (Article 355) covers "writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting,
theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar
means (italics and boldface mine)." It isn't clear as to whether a Facebook post falls under the "similar means" provision, which is why our lawmakers inserted the libel provision in R.A. 10175 to begin with.
If the Facebook post does not fall under what's stated in the Revised Penal Code, Judge Tabaco may have some explaining to do.
The arrest appears to have the tacit approval of Malacanang, as Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda insists, “The basis for the arrest was not the Cybercrime [Prevention] Act, which
we all know has been restrained by the Supreme Court. The case stemmed
from a libel case filed by the mayor.” At the same time, Lacierda tries to act puzzled as he states (in Filipino), “Ang cause kasi nito galing sa Facebook. Kaya nagtataka rin kami bakit…
may Supreme Court decision na on the issue of publication pagdating sa
cyberspace, bakit ito natuloy pa.” It seems that the spokesperson isn't sure what stance he should take.
As it is, an as-yet unidentified Department of Justice (DoJ) official has spoken out in support of Garcia, asserting that online libel is not yet punishable by law. It's not certain, though, if this will be considered an official DoJ statement, but it's likely that DoJ Secretary Leila de Lima will issue one soon.
The case is still ongoing, so it's likely that we will get more updates on it as it develops. For now, the Pentecostes libel suit is a wake-up call for us to be vigilant about protecting our rights, and make sure that our freedom of expression is not curtailed.