Is the place of access the proper venue to file an Internet libel case?By Francis Lim
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The recently enacted Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175) punishes the crime of libel committed through the use of the Internet, in this manner:
“Sec. 4(c)(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.”
The new law does not change the definition of the crime of libel under the Revised Penal Code. However, it does two things.
First, it adds a new element—the crime must be committed through a computer system or any other similar means that may be devised in the future. Second, the crime of “Internet libel” is punishable by a penalty one degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code.
Under the new law, the penalty is imprisonment for a minimum period of four years and one day to a maximum of eight years, per offense.
Of course, the inclusion of this provision, which was not found in the version submitted by the House, has engendered some controversy. But that is not the concern of this column for the moment.
While the Regional Trial Court (RTC) has been expressly granted criminal jurisdiction over violations of the law, the Cybercrime Act does not provide for the place (venue) where the criminal case should be filed. Consequently, there is uncertainty as to where the proper venue should be laid for purposes of instituting criminal actions for Internet libel.
So the question is: Where is the venue for Internet libel under the new law? Can the offended party file the criminal case for libel in the place where he gained access to the libelous article published over the Internet?
The answer to the latter question is, no.
The case of Bonifacio vs. RTC of Makati, G.R. No. 184800, 5 May 2010, may enlighten us on the matter. In this case, Bonifacio and the other respondents were members of the Parents Enabling Parents Coalition, Inc. (PEPCI).
PEPCI was formed by a group of dissatisfied planholders of the Pacific Plans Inc. (PPI), a company belonging to the Yuchengco Group of Companies. The planholders purchased traditional pre-need educational plans, but were unable to collect the benefits after PPI filed for corporate rehabilitation before the RTC of Makati.
As a result, PEPCI created and thereafter maintained a website (www.pepcoalition.com) that served as a forum for the planholders to air their grievances. The website was easily accessible anywhere by anyone with Internet connection.
Claiming that the website contained defamatory and libelous statements, the Yuchengco Group, through a certain John Gimenez, filed 13 counts of criminal cases for libel in Makati. The Amended Information alleged that the defamatory article “was first published and accessed by the private complainant in Makati City.”
Bonifacio and his co-accused moved to dismiss the criminal cases, claiming that Makati City is not the proper venue since that is only where the victim accessed the defamatory material.
The Supreme Court sustained the contention of Bonifacio and dismissed the cases for improper venue. The Court reiterated that the venue of libel cases, where the complainant or offended party is a private individual, is limited only to either of two places: 1) where the complainant actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense; or 2) where the alleged defamatory article was printed and first published.”
In the case, the Court found that the Amended Information did not allege that the complainant resided in Makati where the libel cases were filed. The Amended Information likewise did not state that the defamatory article was printed and first published in Makati City. What it alleged was that the defamatory article “was first published and accessed by the private complainant in Makati City.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the place where the article is “accessed” is not synonymous to the place where it is “first published,” for purposes of vesting jurisdiction on the RTC of Makati.
In support of its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that R.A. 4363 amended Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code by laying down new rules on venue to prevent the “indiscriminate or arbitrary laying of the venue in libel cases in distant, isolated or far-flung areas, meant to accomplish nothing more than harass or intimidate an accused.”
According to the Court, “to hold that the Amended Information sufficiently vested jurisdiction in the courts of Makati simply because the defamatory article was accessed therein would open the floodgates to the libel suit being filed in all other locations where the pepcoalition website is likewise accessed or capable of being accessed.”
It “would spawn the very ills that the amendment sought to discourage and prevent. It hardly requires much imagination to see the chaos that would ensue if the website’s creator or writer, a blogger, or anyone who posts messages and comments therein could be sued for libel anywhere in the Philippines where the victim or complainant allegedly accessed the offending website.”
Following the principles laid down in the case of Bonifacio, the rules on venue of criminal actions for Internet libel are as follows: (I) If the offended party is a private individual, the criminal case can only be filed in either of two places, namely: (a) where the complainant or offended party actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense; or (b) where the alleged defamatory article was printed and first published. (II) If the offended party is a public official, the criminal case can only be filed in either of two places, namely: (a) in the place (whether in or outside Manila) where he holds office at the time of the commission of the crime; or (b) where the alleged defamatory article was printed and first published.
New rules for Internet libel?
The new law further provides that jurisdiction lies where any of the elements was committed in the Philippines. The new law seems to be saying that venue can be laid anywhere in the country for Internet libel or other cybercrimes.
The Supreme Court may come up with new rules on venue taking into account this provision under the new law and the nature of cybercrimes (which include Internet libel), in the exercise of its constitutional prerogative to prescribe rules of procedure. Until this happens, however, it may be prudent to follow the existing rules under the Revised Penal Code, which are simplified and listed above.
(The author is the co-managing partner of the ACCRA LAW Offices and may be reached at email@example.com.)
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