Media's Public

Cyber libel a continuing crime? NBI uses theory against Rappler

By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita

NBI argues that the news site didn’t cease in committing the offense when it didn’t remove the “offensive” story against a businessman. Unlike news in print, internet stories go beyond the day of posting.

A continuing crime, Black’s Law Dictionary says, is a single crime consisting of a series of acts but all arising from one criminal resolution.

A robbery gang strikes at three jewelry stores in three locations in a span of one hour. A spurned suitor kidnaps a girl and takes her on a ride across two towns and one city. Those are continuing crimes.

But is online libel a continuing crime just because the story hasn’t been removed from the “offending” mews site?

Disturbing precept

Lawyers of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), filing a complaint of cyber libel against online news site Rappler over a news report posted in 2012 and 2014, said “defamatory statements online (are)… indubitably considered a continuing crime until and unless the libelous article is actually removed or taken down.” Online content is not like published material on print, the NBI said.

True about news or opinion published in the internet: they last beyond date of posting. But can that defeat the express provision of Republic Act 4661 of 1966 that libel prescribes in one year?

NBI lawyers obviously rely on the precept that the statute of limitations “begins to run with the consummation of the crime while in a continuing crime, it only begins with the cessation of criminal conduct.”

Thus they allege that Rappler continued the crime by keeping on its site the allegedly offensive news story about businessman Wilfredo Keng having lent his SUV to then Supreme Court chief justice justice Renato Corona.

That argument, a bit of a stretch, is disturbing.

Keeps on running

If the NBI line is accepted, that means the prescriptive period keeps on running as deleting the “offensive” story by Rappler won’t make it vanish. Other sites picked

it up, people shared it among friends, the material is tucked in some digital cloud and still accessible.

A complaint can be filed or re-filed anytime. The prescriptive period, the NBI argues, won’t stop running and no double jeopardy sets in since the case hasn’t reached

the court yet. Like the internet, the lawsuit is forever.

Prescription’s purpose

That defeats the purpose of setting the period of a crime’s prescription: grievance ends at some point, evidence deteriorates, offender and complainant must be placed on the same footing, machinery of justice can’t stand more overload.

Any crime Rappler did was consummated in 2012 and 2014. Not taking down the story may increase the penalty but it can’t be used to make the crime continuing so as to go around the prescriptive period.

Otherwise, a sword hangs perpetually over a journalist or news outlet whose story it has failed or, being sure of its facts, refused to take down.

Not better off

One reason given us why penalty for cyber libel is one degree higher than the jail term for print libel is that online publication is wider and lasts longer.

Conceding to the NBI theory is agreeing that the burden can be compounded: on top of the higher penalty, a much longer prescriptive period.

But print writers and editors may not be better off than online journalists. Most if not all print materials are also published online and many complainants want to sue under the anti-cybercrime law.

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