In this modern age of technology, the internet has become both a powerful tool for communication and marketing and a destructive platform to engage in criminal activities. One crime often heard nowadays which utilizes the internet or social media is “cyber libel.”
Section 4 (c) (4) of Republic Act No. 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act 2012, does not provide an exact definition of cyber libel or online libel, but instead refers to “libel,” as defined under the Revised Penal Code, and qualifies the crime through “a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”
Section 6 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act 2012 imposes upon online libel or cyber libel a penalty that is one degree higher than “traditional” libel or libel under the RPC. Under the RPC, as amended by RA 10951, the penalty for traditional libel is prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from P40,000 to P1,200,000, or both.
In Disini v. Secretary of Justice (G.R. 203335, 11 February 2014), the Supreme Court explained that a higher penalty is imposed for cyber libel as it arises from the fact that in “using the technology in question, the offender often evades identification and is able to reach far more victims or cause greater harm.”
In the recently decided case of People v. Soliman (G.R. No. 256700), promulgated on 25 April 2023 but published on 17 October 2023, the SC En Banc clarified that a lower court may sentence an accused found guilty of online libel to payment of fine only, rather than imprisonment.
In 2018, Jomerito S. Soliman was charged with online libel for a Facebook post against former Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary Waldo R. Carpio. Soliman alluded in his Facebook post that Asec. Carpio took favors and unduly delayed the release of Soliman’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Import Clearance.
The Regional Trial Court or RTC found Soliman guilty beyond reasonable doubt of online libel and sentenced him to pay only a fine of P50,000. In imposing the penalty of fine only, the RTC invoked Supreme Court Administrative Circular No. 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 Office of the Solicitor General, or OSG, appealed the case before the Court of Appeals or CA, claiming that the RTC committed a grave abuse of discretion in imposing a penalty of fine. This was denied by the CA, prompting the OSG to bring the case to the SC.
When the case reached the SC, it affirmed the RTC and CA, but first noted that its review was limited to whether the CA was correct in ruling that the RTC did not commit grave abuse of discretion in imposing the P50,000 fine only.
According to the High Court, the RPC recognized that a fine may be imposed as a single or alternative penalty for libel, as evinced 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, the SC held that a fine can be imposed for traditional libel in lieu of imprisonment.
As for online libel, the SC found that the OSG erroneously assumed that only imprisonment may be increased or decreased by degrees under the RPC, and that imprisonment is the mandatory penalty for online libel. The SC cited 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.
The SC explained that AC 08-2008 does not supplant the legislative intent behind the imposition of a higher degree of penalty in online libel. It further explained that lower courts should bear in mind the principles laid down in AC 08-2008, among which is that courts take into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case to determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice.