Friday, June 21, 2024

SC: For online libel, courts may impose fine instead of imprisonment

The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that a court may sentence an accused found guilty of online libel to payment of fine only, rather than imprisonment.

The high court made the decision as it denied the Petition for Review on Certiorari filed by the People of the Philippines against Jomerito S. Soliman.

The petition claimed that the Court of Appeals (CA) committed grave abuse of discretion when it affirmed the decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) convicting Soliman for online libel and sentencing him to pay a fine of P50,000.

In 2018, Soliman was charged for online libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act for a Facebook post against Waldo R. Carpio, then assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

Soliman alluded in his Facebook post that Carpio took favors and unduly delayed the release of Soliman’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Import Clearance.

The RTC found Soliman guilty beyond reasonable doubt of online libel and sentenced him to pay a fine of P50,000. In imposing the penalty of fine only, the RTC invoked Supreme Court Administrative Circular No. (AC) 08-2008, or the Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases, which permits the imposition of fine, rather than imprisonment, in libel cases.

Soliman paid the fine and no longer appealed his conviction.

However, the government, through the Office of the Solicitor General, filed a Petition for Certiorari before the CA, claiming that the RTC committed grave abuse of discretion in imposing a penalty of fine only for Soliman’s violation of online libel.

The CA denied the petition, prompting the OSG to file the petition before the SC.

In affirming the CA and the RTC, the SC first noted that its review is limited to the question of whether the CA was correct in ruling that the RTC committed grave abuse of discretion in imposing the P50,000 fine only, instead of imprisonment higher by one degree.

Section 6 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act imposes upon online libel, or libel committed through information and communication technologies, a penalty that is one degree higher than ‘traditional’ libel, or libel under the Revised Penal Code (RPC).

Under the RPC, as amended by RA 10951, the penalty for traditional libel is “prision correcional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from P40,000 to P1,200,000, or both.”

The SC ruled that the RPC recognizes that the penalty of fine may be imposed as a single or alternative penalty for libel, as evident in the RPC’s “plain use of the disjunctive word ‘or’ between the term of imprisonment and fine, such word signaling disassociation or independence between the two words.”

Thus, for traditional libel, a fine can be imposed in lieu of imprisonment, held the court.

As for online libel, the SC found that the government erroneously assumed that only imprisonment may be increased or decreased by degrees under the RPC, and that thus, imprisonment is the mandatory penalty for online libel.

The SC debunked this assumption, citing Article 75 of the RPC which provides that the penalty of fine may be increased or decreased by degrees of one-fourth of the maximum amount set by law, without changing the minimum.

As to libel, the SC found that upon dividing the maximum amount of the fine for traditional libel (P1,200,000) into four parts, each degree amounts to P300,000.

To determine the penalty for online libel, which is one degree higher, P300,000 must be added to the maximum amount for traditional libel.

Thus, the maximum amount of fine for online libel shall be P1,500,000, with the minimum amount of P40,000 unchanged in accordance with Article 75 of the RPC. The range of fine for online libel shall thus be from P40,000 to P1,500,000.

Applying this to Soliman, the P50,000 fine sentenced by the RTC is thus within the range of fine imposable by law.

In 2017, RA 10951 was enacted, effectively increasing the penalties under the RPC, including the penalty for traditional libel. However, under the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the penalty for online libel retained the old amount of fine in the RPC.

In resolving the conflict, the SC ruled that the provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which refers to the penalty provided in the RPC, as amended in 2017, must apply.

Thus, for Soliman, who committed the crime of online libel in 2018, the penalty as amended in 2017 shall also apply.

The SC held that AC 08-2008, which sets a rule of preference for imposing fines instead of imprisonment in libel cases, “does not supplant the legislative intent behind the imposition of a higher degree of penalty in online libel. In fact, with due deference to prevailing statutes, it is careful to emphasize that it does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty.”

It further ruled that in the imposition of penalty for libel/online libel, courts should bear in mind the principles laid down in AC 08-2008, among which, that courts take into consideration “the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperatives of justice.”

In the case of Soliman, the SC found that the circumstances surrounding the defamatory Facebook post are akin to one of the circumstances under AC 08-2008, specifically that Soliman was animated by anger and his perception that Carpio was provoking him by his allegedly intentional delay in releasing Soliman’s clearance.

Hence, there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the RTC in imposing on Soliman a penalty of fine only.

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