Can I Get in Trouble for Criticizing Someone on Social Media

Free speech has always been the cornerstone of any democratic society. It is so important in our society that it is jealously protected and guaranteed by no less than the Constitution. However, much like all other freedoms, the exercise of free speech is not without limitation. As the old adage goes, one’s freedoms end where another’s rights begin.

That said, much has been said about the crime of libel. It is a crime that is defined and the penalties for its commission provided for under the Revised Penal Code. Libel, criminal libel to be specific, is defined as a public and malicious imputation of a crime or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. (Guingguing v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 128959, 30 September 2005) To commit criminal libel, the following requirements must be present: (a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable. (Almendras, Jr., v. AlmendrasG.R. No. 179491, 14 January 2015).

 With the rise in the use of social media, a problem with regard to criminal libel was identified. Are posts made on social media, i.e. on the wall of a personal social media account, considered “publicity” under the law? This was answered by Congress with the passage of the Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Section 4 (c)(4) considers libel as defined by Revised Penal Code and committed “through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future” to be penalized under the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Thus, the crime of cyber libel was born.

A lot of controversies surrounded the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act. The provision for cyber libel and the provisions on aiding and abetting cybercrimes may well be the most controversial of them all. So controversial was the law, that it reached no less than the Supreme Court. In fact, no fewer than sixteen (16) petitions were filed before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the law. All the debates on the validity of the provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act were put to rest when the Supreme Court released its decision in the case entitled Disini, et. al. vs. The Secretary of Justice, et. al. (G.R. No. 203335, 11 February 2014) and fifteen other cases consolidated with it. In that case, the Supreme Court decided on the constitutionality of the law. For our purpose, we will focus on the part of the decision dealing with Cyber Libel. Suffice it to state, the provision defining cyber libel was upheld to be constitutional.

The Supreme Court conceded that the “culture associated with internet media is distinct from that of print.” That is why it had to pass on the constitutionality of the provision on aiding and abetting in the commission of a cybercrime (Sec. 5 of the law). The question the Supreme Court sought to answer is whether “liking”, “sharing”, or “commenting” a defamatory statement can be considered as aiding and abetting within the meaning of the law. The Court then proceeded to explain the intricacies of online public interactions. It then concluded that in relation to cyber libel, Sec. 5 (defining and penalizing aiding and abetting in the commission of a cybercrime), is unconstitutional for being vague. The Court reasoned that the law’s “vagueness raises apprehension on the part of internet users because of its obvious chilling effect on the freedom of expression, especially since the crime of aiding or abetting ensnares all the actors in the cyberspace front in a fuzzy way.” In other words, because the law is vague as to what exactly constitutes aiding and abetting the commission of cyber libel, it creates an environment apprehension for internet users and their freedom of expression is thereby curtailed.

In summary, those who merely “like”, “share”, or “comment” on a defamatory internet post would not be liable for aiding and abetting in the commission of cyber libel. It would be different if an internet user would post a comment which not merely reacts but in itself is a defamatory post. Then such comment would be considered as cyber libel.

Now, how can an imputation or, say a social media post, not be considered as libelous or defamatory? Aside from the absence of the requisites in the commission of the crime, the Revised Penal Code also provides an additional defense. Article 361 of the law provides that “[i]n every criminal prosecution for libel, the truth may be given in evidence to the court and if it appears that the matter charged as libelous is true, and, moreover, that it was published with good motives and for justifiable ends, the defendants shall be acquitted”. So, if the published statement is true, and that the same was published with good motives or justifiable ends, then the person who made the imputation is not liable for libel, or cyber libel for that matter.

In the end, it is advisable to be always respectful. If there is a need to make seemingly defamatory imputations or social media posts, there must be a good motive for the said post, or it was made for justifiable ends. More importantly, make sure that it’s true. After all, nothing really beats the truth.

Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. This should not be used as a basis for any legal action.