Rappler’s chief executive officer Maria Ressa and Rey Santos, Jr. were convicted of a clearly prescribed offense of cyber libel when the trial judge errantly extended the prescriptive period of cyber libel by invoking the almost century old Act No. 3326, instead of applying the one-year prescription under Art. 80 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
Act No. 3326 provides for the prescription of offenses defined by special penal laws based on the severity of the impossable penalty, in which case cyber libel is supposed to prescribe in 12 years since its penalty is imprisonment for six (6) or more.
The purported cyber libel was committed in May 2012 but the criminal action was filed only in 2017 or five (5) years later, which was more than the one-year period within which to institute the case.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montessa of the Manila Regional Trial Court, Branch 46, committed a palpably reversible error by not applying the RPC because:
No less than the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012” or RA No. 10175 unequivocally refers to Article 355 of the RPC on the commission of cyber libel, thus making the elements of cyber libel identical with those of ordinary libel, except for the additional element that cyber libel is committed through the use of the computer system.
Sec. 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime law in defining cyber libel refers to Art. 355 of the RPC which provides that “a libel is public and malicious imputation of a crime, or 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.”
Under Section 8 of the cybercrime law on penalties, no penalty is prescribed for cyber libel mentioned in Section 4(c) (4). However, since the basic elements of cyber libel are those defined by the RPC, then the penalty stipulated under the RPC is presumed imposable by one degree higher as prescribed for other cybercrimes where a related existing law already imposes penalties.
In this connection, the legality for penalizing cyber libel where no penalty is specifically imposed by the cybercrime law, unlike the other cybercrimes mentioned in Section 4 of RA No. 10175, is questionable based on the principle that there should be no penalty without being specifically prescribed by law following the maxim of nulla poena sine lege (no penalty without a law prescribing a punishment).
If the elements of ordinary libel and the penalty for such libel are the bases for the prosecution and conviction of cyber libel, perforce the one-year prescription for libel under Art. 80 of the RPC is the one applicable, not Act. No. 3326, entitled “An Act to Establish Periods of Prescription for Violations Penalized by Special Act”, which was enacted way back on September 4, 1926, and has no reference in particular to libel.
Unlike what Judge Montessa did, there is no need to consider the gravity of the imposable penalty for cyber libel because the one-year period for prescription of libel under the RPC does not consider the severity of the penalty since the brief prescriptive period is an act of extreme liberality for excluding libel from the protection of free speech and the freedom of the press.
Oblivion through the short passage of time extinguishes criminal liability for libel to compensate for criminalizing an act which borders on the exercise of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.
The immutable policy is that penal statutes should be liberally construed in favor of the accused so much so that the shorter period of one-year prescription under the Revised Penal Code should be the one applied instead of the inordinately longer 12-year prescription under Act No. 3326.
The Supreme Court held in People v. Pacificador (G.R. No. 139405, March 13, 2001) that “in the interpretation of the law on prescription of crimes, that which is more favorable to the accused is to be adopted.”
EDCEL C. LAGMAN