President Benigno Aquino III delivers his speech during the annual presidential forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) at the Centennial Ballroom, The Manila Hotel, on Oct. 17. FOCAP is one of the country’s most prestigious and respected media organization. It was founded in 1974 to safeguard press freedom during the Martial Law years under then President Ferdinand Marcos.  (Photo by Gil Nartea/Malacañang Photo Bureau/PNA)

MANILA — President Benigno Aquino III is in favor of decriminalizing libel even though he signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which provides for online libel with higher penalties.

Mr. Aquino, speaking at the Annual Presidential Forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines last Wednesday, said he did not intend to curtail freedom of expression when he signed the law, adding the provision on libel was not an initiative of the executive branch.

“It just states that under the Revised Penal Code, postings on the Net are also subject to that provision...It’s already existing. So do we want to curtail freedom of speech? I will be one of the primary witnesses of how pervasive freedom of speech is in this country. So I think that’s an invalid question,” Mr. Aquino said when asked if the cybercrime law was a move backwards in promoting freedom of expression in the country.

Asked whether he was in favor of decriminalizing libel, Mr. Aquino said: “Yes.”

“I’m divided between sometimes the personal side and the public side. I think, I fully subscribe to the idea of decriminalizing it. But decriminalizing, not lessening the atmosphere to encourage irresponsibility in certain quarters,” he said.

Mr. Aquino also justified anew his decision to sign the Cybercrime Act, saying his focus was to curb Internet-related crimes that have not been prosecuted for lack of specific laws.

“When the proposed measure was brought before me, I have basically two options under the Constitution, if I agree with the same I sign it into law; if I disagree with the same, I veto everything,” he said.

“I only have a line veto on the budget measure, I don’t have a line veto on other measures. If I nearly failed to sign the law then the provisions on identity fraud or to prevent identity fraud, porn and the other aspects sought to be penalized by this law would have been left again in limbo,” he added.

The President cited the anti-wiretapping law, which defined devices that one could use to commit a crime.

“Unfortunately, most of the enumerated methods of wiretapping no longer exist and perhaps most of us who are younger in this room will not even know what a Dictaphone (dictation machine) is,” he said.

“Our jurisprudence says that unless there’s a physical wire that you actually tap into then you cannot be guilty of wiretapping or illegal wiretapping. We now have the Internet. My position is simple: When I read the law and I read it, I think, three times and the proposed measure has said that there’s an existing provision on libel in the Revised Penal Code,” Mr. Aquino said.

The President said libelous materials in print and broadcast should be treated the same as those posted online.

“There shouldn’t be an exemption...based on what format,” he said.

But he said he is open to amendments to address the contentious issues, including the higher penalties.

The Supreme Court issued a 120-day temporary restraining order on the law’s implementation on Oct. 9.

Malacañang said this should be a chance to study the measure further and consider changing contentious provisions, including online libel.

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