Libel in the Cyberspace Image

Protecting Cyberspace from Cybercrimes

In this modern age, with the emergence of mobile internet and wireless broadband subscriptions, almost all our conversations take place in the cyberspace. As of 2020, there are 1.69 billion Facebook users in the world and 330 million monthly active users and 145 million daily active users on Twitter. [1]

We often hear the word cybercrimes and cyber liber or online libel in the news, social media or the Internet. But what does cyber libel mean? Is it a new crime?

To keep up with the times, the Philippine Congress has enacted Republic Act No. 10175, or otherwise known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (“RA 10175”). One of the offenses punishable under this law is cyber libel. However, the RA 10175 does not provide a definition of libel as it is already defined by Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code Article 353, which provides:

“Art. 353. A libel is 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.”

Punishing Libel in Cyberspace

The Cybercrime Prevention Act adopted this definition. Thus, the elements of libel as defined in Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code, is the same as that of cyber libel, namely:

(1) imputation of a crime, vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition status or circumstance;

(2) publicity or publication;

(3) malice;

(4) direction of such imputation at a natural or juridical person; and

(5) tendency to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of the person defamed. (Belen vs. People of the Philippines, G.R. No. 211120, 13 February 2017)

What makes the difference? Section 4 of RA 10175 included libel as one of the punishable acts which is categorized under content-related offense, and it provides, to wit:

“SEC. 4. Cybercrime Offenses. — The following acts constitute the offense of cybercrime punishable under this Act:

x x x

(4) Libel. — The 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. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied.)”

In effect, Section 4(c)(4) above merely affirms that online defamation constitutes ―similar means for committing libel.

A Question of Double Jeopardy

Now, one may raise a question of double jeopardy.

In Alexander Adonis, et. al., vs. The Executive Secretary, et. al., G.R. No. 203378, 18 February 2014, the Supreme Court had this to say regarding double jeopardy, to wit:


“For purposes of double jeopardy analysis, therefore, Section 4(c)(4) of RA 10175 and Article 353 in relation to Article 355 of the Code define and penalize the same offense of libel. Under the Double Jeopardy Clause, conviction or acquittal under either Section 4(c)(4) or Article 353 in relation to Article 355 constitutes a bar to another prosecution for the same offense of libel.

The case of petitioners Ellen Tordesillas, Harry Roque and Romel Bagares in G.R. No. 203378 provides a perfect example for applying the rules on print and online libel in relation to the Double Jeopardy Clause. These petitioners write columns which are published online and in print by national and local papers. They allege, and respondents do not disprove, that “their columns see publication in both print and online versions of the papers they write for.” Should these petitioners write columns for which they are prosecuted and found liable under Section 4(c)(4) of RA 10175 for online libel, the Double Jeopardy Clause bars their second prosecution for print libel for the same columns upon which their first conviction rested, under Article 353 in relation to Article 355 of the Code. Such constitutional guarantee shields them from being twice put in jeopardy of punishment for the same offense of libel.” (Empathies and underscoring supplied.)

In the above-cited case, it is clear that there is double jeopardy when one has already been prosecuted and found liable for cyber libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act and he is again prosecuted for print libel under the Revised Penal Code, and vice versa. The only difference then is the penalty.

Aiding and Abetting in Cyber Libel

The Court in the case of Jose Disini, Jr., et. al., vs. The Secretary of Justice, et. al., G.R. No. 203335, 18 February 2014, declared aiding and abetting in the commission of online libel as unconstitutional, to wit:

“The terms aiding or abetting constitute broad sweep that generates chilling effect on those who express themselves through cyberspace posts, comments, and other messages. Hence, Section 5 of the cybercrime law that punishes aiding or abetting libel on the cyberspace is a nullity.

Section 5 with respect to Section 4(c)(4) is unconstitutional. Its vagueness raises apprehension on the part of internet users because of its obvious chilling effect on the freedom of expression, especially since the crime of aiding or abetting ensnares all the actors in the cyberspace front in a fuzzy way.”

The Court discussed about the difference of online libel from aiding or abetting to online libel in the above-cited case, to wit:

“Aiding or abetting has of course well-defined meaning and application in existing laws. When a person aids or abets another in destroying a forest, smuggling merchandise into the country, or interfering in the peaceful picketing of laborers, his action is essentially physical and so is susceptible to easy assessment as criminal in character. These forms of aiding or abetting lend themselves to the tests of common sense and human experience.

But, when it comes to certain cybercrimes, the waters are muddier and the line of sight is somewhat blurred. The idea of “aiding or abetting” wrongdoings online threatens the heretofore popular and unchallenged dogmas of cyberspace use.

x x x

Online libel is different. There should be no question that if the 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 libels. The two offenses, one a violation of Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code and the other a violation of Section 4(c)(4) of R.A. 10175 involve essentially the same elements and are in fact one and the same offense. “

Heavier Penalty for Cyber Libel

Pursuant to Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, libel is punishable by prisión correccional in its minimum (from 6 months and 1 day to 2 years and 4 months) and medium (from 2 years, 4 months, and 1 day to 4 years and 2 months) periods. However, in the light of the increase in penalty by one degree under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, libel qualified by the use of ICT is now punishable by prisión correccional in its maximum period (from 4 years, 2 months and 1 day to 6 years) to prisión mayor in its minimum period (from 6 years and 1 day to 8 years). This increased penalty means that if libel is committed through the now commonly and widely used means of communication, ICT, libel becomes a non-probationable offense.

Be wary of what you post online.

About Nicolas and De Vega Law Offices

If you need assistance in cybercrime, civil or other criminal law-related issues,  we can help you. Nicolas and de Vega Law Offices is a full-service law firm in the Philippines.  You may visit us at the 16th Flr., Suite 1607 AIC Burgundy Empire Tower, ADB Ave., Ortigas Center, 1605 Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines.  You may also call us at +632 84706126, +632 84706130, +632 84016392 or e-mail us at [email protected]. Visit our website www.ndvlaw.com.


[1] Global number of Facebook users 2015-2020, published by J. Clement, Nov 15, 2019. Culled from https://www.statista.com/statistics/490424/number-of-worldwide-facebook-users/.

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