POSTSCRIPT / September 27, 2012 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Libel law covers print; why not cyber media?

SACRED CYBERSPACE: It will not be fair if print and broadcast media are subject – as they are now — to the libel sanctions of the Revised Penal Code while others who maliciously malign persons in the Internet are exempted from similar prosecution.

If only for this reason, this newspaperman cannot agree with some bloggers and other users of social media who insist that libel, or published malicious defamation, be excluded from the prohibited acts under the new Cybercrime Prevention Law (RA 10175).

Why should there be special treatment, or outright exemption, for malicious defamation in cyberspace?

What is sauce for the print and broadcast media — which are governed by time-tested laws and long-established professional codes — should be sauce for bloggers and cybermedia writers.

Press freedom and the other freedoms are not absolute. In fact, the essence of freedom is best appreciated within the defining frame of its limitations.

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IT’S STILL LIBEL: The new law, RA 10175, did not change or expand the elements defining libel.

The elements under the penal code are still: (a) imputation of a crime, a vice or a defect to another; (b) publication of the imputation; (c) identification of the person defamed; and (d) malice in the imputation. There is no libel if one element, such as malice, is missing.

The anti-cybercrime law merely widened the libel coverage of the Revised Penal Code to include exactly the same acts committed in cyberspace in the context of the same old elements. What is basically wrong with that reiteration?

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WHICH ONE?: Now if objectors attack the libel provision of the Revised Penal Code itself with the end in view of amending it or, to be specific, decriminalizing libel, then this battle-scarred newspaperman will fight with them.

The penal code is not perfect. But note that print media have been operating under it for decades without substantially diminishing their effectiveness in performing their difficult adversarial role vis-à-vis the government.

In whatever manner the penal code and/or RA 10175 are later rewritten to promote the public good while protecting private rights, the same prospective regulations should apply evenly and fairly to print, broadcast AND cyber media.

But first, let us make up our minds if we want to challenge the Cybercrime Prevention Law or the Revised Penal Code, or both simultaneously.

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ALL-ENCOMPASSING: In its enumeration of acts considered as cybercrimes, RA 10175 simply added libel as one of several “content-related” offenses – together with child pornography and cybersex — under an insertion that says:

“(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.” (Emphasis supplied)

This libel portion can be challenged on the basis of its all-encompassing coverage of acts that may be committed, it says, through a computer system “or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”

The vague and over-reaching coverage of unknown and unspecified “similar means” that still have to be devised or invented in the uncertain future leaves this libel part standing on shaky legal grounds.

If this part is struck down as invalid, however, the usual separability clause (Section 29) in the law leaves the other provisions intact if left unchallenged.

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AGRIBUSINESS SUCCESS: The other week, we cited the positive action taken by the Philippine Stock Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission to a request by a newly-listed firm for a thorough study of the performance of the price of its publicly-held shares.

The request was made by Calata Corp., a leading distributor of agricultural products, after it noted a rather impressive rise in its share prices less than a month after its initial public offering. Calata reportedly wanted to make sure no external forces influenced the market.

At our end, we got queries as to the background of Calata. It is actually a major player in the agriculture sector, but it has been mostly low-key and relatively unknown outside its market niche.

It is currently ranked 595th among the country’s top 1,000 corporations with revenues of P1.12 billion as of the end of the first half of this year.

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MODEST BEGINNING: Calata Corp. used to be a small-town agricultural enterprise in Plaridel, Bulacan, owned by Eusebio Calata. The original store was no more than 80 square meters, a far cry from its present network of 120 outlets in 11 Luzon provinces.

It was Eusebio’s 31-year-old son, Joseph, who as chairman and chief executive revolutionized and expanded its operations, capped by its going public last May. He grew up and studied in Plaridel, until high school, and obtained his degree from the De La Salle University in Manila.

The company has become a major channel of farms inputs, veterinary medicines and livestock feeds made by global manufacturers such as Syngenta, Monsanto, Jardine, Swire, B-Meg, and San Miguel Corp.

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BRIGHT PROSPECTS: More than the size of its business and its revenues, what makes Calata interesting is that its outlets are both “hi-tech” and “hi-touch”. It also offers free scientific and technology-based advice to its customers.

Calata says that prospects remain bright for agriculture, particularly the poultry and livestock subsectors. The performance of agriculture in the first semester of 2012, he says, “points in the direction of decent growth” and indicates a better finish this year compared to 2011.

Citing figures of the Bureau of Agriculture Statistics, Calata notes that while crops registered a minimal 1.5 percent growth during the first six months, poultry grew by 5.5 percent while livestock contributed 15.21 percent to agriculture’s overall growth.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 27, 2012)

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