Lawyers’ group files motion to quash cyber libel case against Rappler chief

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa ( photo)

A HUMAN rights lawyers group urged the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) on Tuesday, February 26, to dismiss the cyber libel complaint against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and co-accused, former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos.

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), along with former Supreme Court (SC) spokesperson Theodore Te, filed a motion to quash the cyber libel case before the Manila RTC Branch 146, noting that the offense did not exist when the supposed crime was committed. 

The alleged libelous article, entitled “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen,” posted seven years ago linked businessman and complainant Wilfredo Keng to criminal activities such as human trafficking and illegal drugs. 

The said article written by Santos was posted in May 2012, four months before the cybercrime law was implemented in September 2012. However, the article was corrected on February 19, 2014, for a typographical error — misspelling evasion as “evation”. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that the correction is “republication” covered by Republic Act (RA) 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act. However, RA 10175 was put on hold by an SC Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on October 09, 2012 until April 22, 2014. 

“The alleged republication was done on February 19, 2014, when the TRO was still in effect. During the duration of the TRO, there was effectively no RA 10175 by judicial fiat,” the motion stated. 

It added, “That is the legal, practical, and actual effect of the Supreme Court’s TRO. The alleged republication was done when the TRO was still in effect. This court has to obey the Constitution, the law, and the decisions of the Supreme Court.”

The written petition argued that the typographical corrections should not be identified as republication, based on several decisions from the United States. One ruling suggested that “to treat the changes as republications would be inappropriate and defeat the beneficial purposes of the single publication rule.”

Te, who now represents Ressa, Santos and the Rappler Inc., also criticized the ruling that the DOJ based its complaint on. According to the former SC spokesman, the 1988 case referred to the print media in “multiple republications” which does not apply to Rappler’s online platform.  

“It is a Third Division decision that binds only the parties thereto. It is canonical that only decisions of the Supreme Court En Banc are vested with authoritativeness or precedential character,” the motion read.  

“In the absence of any law or Supreme Court decision that adopts ‘multiple republications’ as a principle applicable specifically to online media, there is no basis for the prosecution’s reliance on [the 1988 case],” it added. 

In line with the said case and the Justice Department’s comprehension of the cybercrime law, the statute of limitations for a published story now adds up to 12 years, meaning online publications can be charged with libel within 12 years from the story’s publication. 

The ordinary libel charge under the Revised Penal Code originally states that it is only within a year and not 12. However, the SC argued in its decision noting that “cyber libel is not a new crime.”

“Indeed, cyber libel 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,’” the motion stated. 

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