News of journalist Frank Cimatu being “found guilty beyond reasonable doubt” of a cyber libel charge is nothing new. He is neither the first, nor the last, if the Philippine government insists on using the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 or Republic Act No. 10175 as a weapon against free expression.

The 19-page decision was said to have been penned by Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 93, based on reports.

The sentence, according to reports, included “imprisonment of six months and one day to five years, five months and 11 days and ordered him to pay Piñol P300,000 as moral damages.”

If I’m not mistaken, this case against Cimatu, filed by former Agriculture secretary Manny Piñol, kicked off back 2017. It was triggered by Cimatu’s post on Facebook, “Agri Sec got rich by 21 M in 6 months. Bird flu pa more.”

It’s good that the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reminds us in its statement that “Under the comments on the same post, Piñol himself issued threats and derogatory remarks against Cimatu. Online trolls flooded Cimatu’s Facebook account with vitriol.”

Cimatu never thought of filing a libel charge against Piñol or any of the trolls, and with good reason. As a journalist of more than ample experience, Cimatu knew how libel has been weaponized against writers and journalists for decades. As an advocate of its decriminalization, filing cyber libel charges against Piñol or trolls would no less be a betrayal of the cause.

Problem is, before landing a job as Agriculture secretary under the Duterte administration, Piñol, too, worked as a journalist for some time. Suffice it that despite repeated calls to decriminalize libel, Piñol’s actions only showed that the road will prove to be a long and arduous one.

When the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, or Republic Act 10175, passed into law, it brought about a flurry of protests. I recall writing a long essay on the law’s obviously dystopian and authoritarian underpinnings, titled “The Orwellian Manifesto,” which is found in my book, Blood Republic. 

In that essay, which was published way before Cimatu’s case, I said, “This law doesn’t only bully us to silence, it presumes to tell us what we should say, if at all we choose to open our mouths. Nothing could be more criminal [to the idea of human rights] than [for power] to presume how we should think for ourselves and speak on our behalf.”

In short, the presence of libel and cyber libel charges in our laws is no different from staring into the barrel of a gun.

Why? Because current libel laws, which are already repressive to begin with under the Revised Penal Code, took on a more vicious character under RA 10175. 

Where ordinary libel merits the minimum period of prision correccional, which is six months and one day to two years and four months, cyber-libel metes out the maximum period, which is “four years, two months and one day to six years, and prision mayor in its minimum period, which is from six years and one day to 8 years.”

To be fair, RA 10175 was drafted to address serious offenses such as cybersex, child pornography, identity theft, internet fraud, system and data interference, and denial-of-service attacks, among others. 

The inclusion, however, of cyber-libel brought about a devastating effect on civil rights and freedom of the press. Prior to being passed into law under the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, Human Rights Watch had already raised pressing issues – the violation of free expression, nonetheless – against the said bill. 

The group said, “The cybercrime law needs to be repealed or replaced. It violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.”

At the height of the promulgation of RA 10175 in 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said the Philippines’ libel and cyber libel laws are “incompatible with Article 19, Paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the Philippines is a signatory.”

I recall news reports pointing to Sen. Tito Sotto as the one who introduced the cyber libel clause into RA 10175. It was earlier attested that there was no mention of “cyber libel” or “cyberbullying” in House Bill 5808 and Senate Bill 2796, the original versions of the bill.

The growing move to decriminalize libel and defamation all around the globe should not take us by surprise. Fourteen countries have launched efforts to decriminalize libel, demanding only fines, not prison terms. 

It’s 2022, humanity should’ve matured by now, leaving behind laws that are not only draconian, but primitive. Are we to remain as cavemen?