Sotto admits inserting libel provision

MANILA — The first Vicente Sotto in the Philippine Senate was said to be a recalcitrant lawyer who promoted Cebuano letters and fought for Philippine independence through the four newspapers he put up in his lifetime.

He is best known among journalists for Republic Act No. 53, enacted in 1946, which protects journalists from being forced into revealing the identities of their news sources. His legacy to Philippine journalism is now known as the Sotto Law.

Sixty-two years after the principled Sotto died in office, his grandson Vicente Sotto III is also making waves in the Senate, but for an entirely different reason.

Over the weekend, the incumbent Sotto admitted to the American news organization CBS News that he was one of two senators who inserted the libel clause in the recently enacted Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which President Aquino signed into law last Sept. 12.

“Yes, I did it. I inserted the provision on libel. Because I believe in it and I don’t think there’s any additional harm,” read the CBS News article by Barnaby Lo.

The article noted, however, that “Sotto may actually have an axe to grind with the Filipino online community after coming under fire for allegedly plagiarizing an American blogger and the late Sen. Robert Kennedy for his speeches against a controversial family planning and reproductive health bill.”

Sotto had claimed that the libel clause was not meant to abridge free speech, but only to protect ordinary people who are “victims of online attacks, character assassination and the like from people who do not observe the standards of journalism.”

But Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona III disagrees and warned the public that the cybercrime law clearly suppresses freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

The senator reiterated his opposition to RA 10175 that both houses of Congress passed last June after five separate petitions were filed at the Supreme Court challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Guingona, who opposed the bill when it reached the Senate floor, said the new law fatally steps backward and leads to the “vault of archaic policies that cannot be made to apply to the modern man operating in a modern world.”

While Guingona conceded the need for a Cybercrime Prevention Act, he said the law contains problematic provisions.

“While libel committed through traditional print media is punishable by up to four years and two months of imprisonment, online libel is punishable by a shocking 12-year imprisonment period,” he added.

He further stated that with the new law, a person can now be prosecuted for libel under the Revised Penal Code and libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act. This is contrary to the 1987 Constitution that protects its people against double jeopardy.