"There is no crime when there is no law punishing it."
The Supreme Court ruled that "allegedly libelous" remarks posted online may be punishable only under the cybercrime law and not under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code or libel.
In a ruling promulgated on April 26 and uploaded on July 10, the High Court's Second Division granted Jannece Peñalosa’s petition to review her libel conviction and pushed for the dismissal of the libel charge filed against her by Jose Ocampo Jr.
“An allegedly libelous Facebook post made may only be punished under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, not under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code. Since the Facebook post complained of was made in 2011, a year before the Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed, there was no libel punishable under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code,” it read.
In August 2011, Peñalosa was charged with libel when she "willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously with malice, compose, prepare and post for circulation and dissemination" some remarks against Ocampo on her Facebook account.
The post included statements such as "Hoy, arkitektong b*b*! Kumain ka para ‘di kalawangin ang utak mong ipis," "Grabe, may kakamatay lang na tatay, nakuha pang magreklamo kung saan-saan. Make yourself [busy] naman, please," and "Grabe naman, utusan mo ‘yung asawa mo na magretire ng makalasap naman ng masarap na buhay at pagkain mga hampas lupa!" among others.
She then filed a motion for reconsideration before the Office of the City Prosecutor, maintaining that there was no probable cause to charge her with libel. Peñalosa's motion for reconsideration was denied, which made her decide to submit a petition for review before the Department of Justice.
The court found probable cause against the petitioner in 2014 and issued a warrant of arrest against her.
In a decision made in September that year, however, the DOJ approved Peñalosa’s request for a review and ordered the prosecutors to drop the case. According to the DOJ, "Internet libel" was still illegal when Peñalosa published the Facebook post that was the “subject of the complaint in 2011."
The prosecutors withdrew the case, and it was dismissed by the Mandaluyong RTC in an order dated Jan. 26, 2015.
“There, the trial court declared that Peñalosa’s act constituted internet libel. However, when the acts complained of were committed on August 3, 2011, Republic Act No. 10175 had yet to be enacted. Therefore, according to the trial court, Peñalosa’s acts were not criminally punishable when they were committed,” the decision read.
Ocampo brought the case to the Court of Appeals and filed a petition for certiorari, which the CA granted. It annulled the Jan. 26, 2015 order of the RTC, saying that Peñalosa’s act of “maligning” Ocampo through a Facebook post was punishable under RPC’s Article 355.
In its 18-page decision, the SC determined that the RTC's move to dismiss the case against Peñalosa did not constitute a serious abuse of discretion. The High Court further emphasized that criminal statutes "are to be construed" broadly in favor of the accused and seriously against the state.
Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code states that libel committed through writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical, exhibition, cinematographic exhibition or any similar means "shall be punished by prison correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000 or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party."
Section 4 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, meanwhile, states that libel "can be committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future."
The High Court said "similar means" could not have included "online defamation" under the statutory construction rule of "noscitur a sociis," which means that if “a particular word or phrase is ambiguous in itself or is equally susceptible to various meanings, its correct construction may be made clear and specific by considering the company of words in which it is founded or with which it is associated.”
According to the SC, the associated words are "writing," "printing," "lithography," "engraving," "radio," "phonograph," "painting," "theatrical exhibition,'' and "cinematographic exhibition" in Article 355 and "computer systems or other similar means which may be derived in the future" were excluded.
"If it were true that Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code already includes libel made through computer systems, then Congress had no need to legislate Article 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, for the latter legal provision will be superfluous," the ruling read.
Making cyber libel punishable under Article 355 of the RPC, according to the High Court, “is to make a penal law effective retroactively but unfavorably to the accused.”