“Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Will Never Hurt Me” is a very old adage usually used as a response to a verbal insult. It is, however, not quite true, because WORDS CAN HURT AND HURT BADLY.
This is why defamatory offenses have been treated as criminal for centuries and the penalties have usually been dependent on how wide an audience the defamatory statements can reach. Slander, or defamation through spoken, or shouted, words can only reach those within earshot. Libel, or defamation through means of publication, such as in writing or through broadcast media, has a higher penalty because it of the wider reach as the audience consists of those who can read, view, or hear the publication or broadcast.
Now comes the Internet and the advent of social media where, a single defamatory post can literally explode around the world reaching an audience of millions or even billions of people.
Thus, while Libel is punished under the Revised Penal Code with punished with imprisonment of prision correccional minimum to medium, essentially six (6) months and one (1) day to four (4) years and two (2), but for Cyber Libel the penalty is one degree higher or prision mayor minimum to medium, or six (6) years and one (1) day to ten (10) years and, with the increase in the penalty, a person convicted for cyber libel CANNOT EVEN APPLY FOR PROBATION.
What exactly is cyber libel? Following Section 4 (c) (4) of RA 10175 a.k.a the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012”, it still follows the definition of libel as 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” but where the publication is done through a “computer system”.
Is the Internet a “computer system” YES, VERY MUCH SO. This is why defamatory posts on social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, will certainly fall within the definition of cyber libel.
What if the defamatory statements were not posted on social media but just emailed to one, or more, people? This would still be considered as cyber libel, again because the publication was done through a “computer system”.
“I did not make the post, I only liked it, shared it or just commented on it, will I be liable? In the case of Disini, Jr. v. Secretary of Justice (G.R. No. 203335, February 18, 2014), the Supreme Court ruled that “liking”, and the same should hold true for “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad” and “Angry”, as well as “sharing” and “commenting” should not result to criminal liability since, unlike the original author of the defamatory post, these “are essentially knee-jerk sentiments of readers who may think little or haphazardly of their response to the original posting.” So, clicked reactions and even reactive comments like “True That!” “Agree 100%” or “Okay Ka Pa sa Olrayt!” will not lead to prosecution.
Besides, in relation to cyber libel, the Supreme Court even struck down, as unconstitutional, Section 5 of the Cybercrime Law punishing any person who “abets or aids” in cyber libel saying that “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”
There is a caveat, however, when it comes to comments that do not merely react to the original post but create a new defamatory statement because this will amount to a separate commission of cyber libel.
In other words, if Jose makes a Facebook post saying “Kawatan Talaga Si Pedro” only Jose is liable for cyber libel and not those who liked, otherwise reacted, shared the post and even those who commented “Totoo Yan”, “Death Penalty Sa Kawatan” or “Dapat Ma Preso Na Yan Si Pedro”. However, if Alfredo posts a comment on Jose’s post saying “Di Lang Yan Sya Kawatan, Rapist Pa Gyud Yan Si Pedro!”, Alfredo will have committed a separate crime of cyber libel.
What about Freedom of Expression and the freedom to express dissatisfaction and disgust against public officers and public figures? Well, the same rules and principles applicable to libel will still be applicable to cyber libel.
It has been reiterated several times by the Supreme Court that a public officer should not be too onion-skinned and should be tolerant of criticism particularly if made in relation to his duties.
In Adiong vs. COMELEC (207 SCRA 712), the Supreme Court reminds us that “even if the defamatory statement is false, no liability can attach if it relates to official conduct, unless the public official concerned proves that the statement was made with actual malice — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
In De Leon v. People, (G.R. No. 212623, January 11, 2016), the High Court ruled that “When one makes commentaries about the other’s performance of official duties, the criticism is considered constructive, then aimed for the betterment of his or her service to the public. It is thus, a continuing duty on the part of the public officer to make room for improvement on the basis of this constructive criticism in as much as it is imperative on the part of the general public to make the necessary commentaries should they see any lapses on the part of the public officer”
However, in the very same case, the ruling, saying that “There lies a thin line between criticism and outright defamation”, continued to say that when the criticism was no longer in relation to the victims public office and is MORE DESTRUCTIVE THAN CONSTRUCTIVE or where there was actual malice, in other words, criminal liability for defamation will arise.
As I have said in previous posts and articles, I have observed it to be true that people seem find it easier to vilify, insult, and malign others when doing it on a keyboard. Again, I feel this to be because the recipient appears less human on a screen.
I just hope we can remind ourselves, when the urge to lash out a someone hits us, that while indeed STICKS AND STONES CAN BREAK BONES, WORDS CAN WOUND THE SOUL.