When Senator Sotto plagiarized Sarah Pope in his recent turno en contra speech, it wasn’t discovered by traditional media. Sotto’s plagiarism was first pointed out in a post on our website at FilipinoFreethinkers.org.
From there other bloggers spread the word, and some even discovered that Pope wasn’t the only one Sotto plagiarized. By then, traditional media had picked up the story, and Sotto’s plagiarism became national news. Soon, it even went international.
Sotto’s critics were those who, unlike the Senator, understood that plagiarism was a serious offense, especially for a public servant. It was surprising that Sotto’s colleagues in both houses of Congress were mostly silent on the issue. Was it because they were guilty of plagiarism themselves? Were they simply looking out for one of their own out of professional courtesy? Whatever the case, one thing became clear: If someone was going to call Sotto out for his erroneous views on plagiarism, it wouldn’t be his fellow legislators.
Fortunately, Filipino netizens took the responsibility. To the extent that public officials kept quiet, Filipino netizens made noise — writing blogs, creating posters, spreading memes — exposing, criticizing, and even mocking Sotto for his plagiarism and how little he understood its seriousness.
This was democracy in action: Ordinary citizens were fearlessly criticizing a representative they had elected. They didn’t have regular columns in which to publish their thoughts. They couldn’t interpellate or give privilege speeches to denounce Sotto. But now, they could have their say, and they were heard. Sotto heard. To a small degree, the playing field was leveled. And this was thanks to the internet.
But instead of listening to netizens, Sotto claimed that he was being bullied. He said that his alleged bullies would one day be held accountable. A few weeks later, the cybercrime law was passed, and it contained a section that made e-libel a worse crime than defamation in print. It’s not a mystery who we have to thank for this.
Much can and has been said about e-libel, but one thing is clear: anyone who uses the internet to criticize public figures has good reason to be afraid. The possibility of spending more than a decade in prison tends to have that effect. As a result, people will think twice before criticizing people like Sotto online. Or as Sotto would like to call it, “cyberbullying.”
But bullying is defined as “the use of superior strength or influence to intimidate or force someone to do what one wants.” Sotto has used his position as a Senator to intimidate and force others to keep silent or think twice before criticizing people like him. Who’s the bully now?
With the Cybercrime law, how will ordinary citizens criticize elected officials without fear of being sued and fined, or worse, put in jail? Should we all join traditional media to receive the same protections journalists receive? Should we all run for public office to receive the same privileges politicians enjoy? These are unrealistic expectations. And if only a few have the freedom to criticize public servants, what does that say about the democratic process? As President Obama said at a recent speech in the UN–a statement I will gladly and properly attribute to him–true democracy “depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.”
Speaking of democracy and the democratic process, we could have used more of that while the Cybercrime Law was still a bill in legislation. The most controversial section of the bill was the section on e-libel. But it seems that it was the least discussed and debated. That is, it didn’t get any time for discussion and debate at all. No one even got an opportunity to interpellate. Why? Because the e-libel section was a last-minute addition by Sen. Sotto during the period of amendments. Note that there wasn’t even an e-libel section to amend — it was an entirely new addition.
Why no one objected to this is a mystery to me. I refuse to believe that so many senators failed to understand the negative implications this has on freedom of speech. Whatever the case, I’m sure that one of the main reasons for this was the very short time they had to review and discuss it. I heard that Sotto, as majority floor leader, immediately closed the period of amendments after introducing the new e-libel section.
As an advocate of the RH Bill, I find this disturbing. Where is the meticulousness that led to the pointlessly long discussions on the meaning of certain words? In the RH Bill, it was “life.” Couldn’t the same attention to detail be applied to words such as “defamation,” “malicious intent,” “justifiable ends,” and “libel” itself? Why is it that in discussing the RH Bill every detail of implementation is carefully questioned, while in the Cybercrime bill, implementation details were left for later?
This lack of discussion and due process has surely lead to the vagueness of the current Cybercrime Law, and I’m sure that had our legislators realized its implications, they wouldn’t have passed it so haphazardly.
This is why we fully support the various motions to amend, replace, and even repeal the Cybercrime law, especially the section on e-libel. At the very least, we want the SC to issue a TRO on the said law. This law has implications on our most basic freedoms, but most of our legislators seem to have overlooked this because the democratic process was hurried, if not entirely violated. And as citizens who are guaranteed free speech by our democratic constitution, we deserve better.
Filipino Freethinkers is part of the Filipino Internet Freedom Alliance, a newly formed coalition that seeks to repeal the current version of the Cybercrime Law and replace it with something more democratic. We invite allied individuals and organizations to join us. Together, let’s ensure that democratic freedoms like freedom of expression and information, both online and off, are preserved and protected.
Image from pineswire.net