It was about 8 years ago when we got in touch with viral star and Attorney Christopher Lao, as we asked the (at the time) relatively newly-minted lawyer his thoughts on the Cybercrime Law. At the time, he believed that libel needs to remain a criminal act, and after all the cyberbullying he received way back in the day, who could blame him?
8 years later, with the Cybercrime Law being used to devastating effect on one Maria Ressa after seeing her convicted of cyberlibel, we ask Christopher Lao about his thoughts on the matter — particularly because he publicly expressed his support for the embattled journalist.
8. We called it — the Cybercrime Law was a mistake.
We’ve written so many lists about the topic back in the day, because even in 2012 and 2013, we knew all too well that the Cybercrime Law was wide open to abuse.
Atty. Lao saw it much the same way. Though he liked the initial thrust of the bill, he had reservations about certain sections that felt like they would end up resulting in prior restraint or double jeopardy. We can debate the merits of the law all we want, but it’s easy to see why it’s received flak since day 1.
7. The Cyberlibel clause wasn’t even originally there.
Cyberlibel was nowhere to be found in the initial drafts of the Cybercrime Law. It only went in after Senator Tito Sotto opted to insert it into the law. This was shortly after the internet crucified him for plagiarizing a bunch of times. 8 years later, that very clause that wasn’t even originally there was used in an alarming way, setting a very chilling precedent if it is affirmed all the way to the Supreme Court.
6. Yes, he now believes libel should be decriminalized.
If you were cyberbullied the way Atty. Christopher Lao was, would it be any surprise that you would think libel should be a crime? Of course not.
What is surprising, though, is after holding this opinion in 2012, Christopher Lao no longer thinks so today. And it’s important to understand why not.
5. Criminal libel exacts too high a toll on our civil liberties.
After 8 years of legal practice, and of understanding the special place freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and human dignity should hold in our hierarchy of Constitutional values, Atty. Lao believes that decriminalizing libel would be the perfect compromise between competing values.
“We can tap other tools like the church, family, education, or so forth to shore up human dignity against libel. With that, and civil indemnities, we could preserve human dignity without needing to sacrifice free speech,” he explained.
4. Weaponizing libel is problematic.
As a criminal offense with potential jail time, Philippine libel laws are considered among the most draconic in the world. In weaponizing this unusually harsh law against dissent and criticism, we can see that our freedom of speech is placed in jeopardy. He sees that libel is more likely to be abused than other penal laws, and with higher penalties in play, cyberlibel, even more so.
Libel as a civil offense should provide ample redress against anyone whose name and reputation is sullied. We should not force people to think twice about reporting or speaking up because doing so undermines the power of truth to will out.
3. His original stance towards libel was purely theoretical.
1/2 Since cyberlibel is back in the headlines, I want to say this. We can’t lose one value in furtherance of another & the penchant for weaponising libel has made me change my view. Civil liability, plus other social tools to discharge the social function of protecting reputation
— Christopher Lao 劉 (@iamchrislao) June 17, 2020
Only in actually practicing the law over the last 8 years did he realize that in practice, libel’s criminality is simply too high a price to pay, and freedom of speech, as it stands, is already in a precarious state in this country.
2. People can change and evolve — and so should our libel laws.
When the press becomes irresponsible and make careless mistakes, they are very well liars. They very well abuse their freedom each time their carelessness results in untold damage to one’s reputation. Yet even then, if the alternative is for them to stay quiet about people who are so much worse than liars, then it is clear why erring on the side of press freedom and free speech is an important safeguard we need to take.
1. Let’s not mince words: the Anti-Terrorism Bill is unconstitutional.
This is basic pattern recognition, after spending most of this list discussing another law our elected officials pinky-swore would never be abused. The Anti-Terrorism Bill follows the same vague language that allowed the Cybercrime Law to charge Maria Ressa with libel over an article written before the law even existed and over a year after the alleged crime took place.
This is a lengthy quote from Attorney Lao, but it’s important:
“The acts constituting terrorism are vaguely defined. Unlike the Human Security Act with reference to special laws and specific RPC violations, this bill has no such reference and instead uses loose terms like ‘extensive interference,’ ‘critical infrastructure,’ ‘extensive damage,’ ‘segment,’ etc., without any saving clause for clarification. They also cannot be clarified by construction.”
He then explains that the bill is an affront to due process, which should be obvious, and it also violates our right to privacy. Under the flimsiest of suspicions, we could have our phones tapped and our communications under surveillance because: ”the Anti-Terror Council is authorized to collect all types of information on us from telecommunications companies.” Do we really want the government listening in on us in the middle of a #JoomZakol session?
Of course not. So if we don’t want the government all up in our junk, then maybe we should all come together (heh) and object to this Anti-Terrorism Bill for the frivolous, wagging-the-dog bandaid it really is, only serving to distract us from the fact that we are in the middle of the worst health crisis in over a century, and a leadership that is woefully incapable of meeting the challenge head-on.
Now you have been informed.
Thoughts? Violent reactions? Sound off in the comments.