Web of threats

MANY PEOPLE had dismissed the then still toddler blogosphere as only the domain of socially challenged geeks and nerds locked up in a dark basement behind a battery of computers. But in 2005, administration allies, battered on all sides by the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal, thought it prudent to drag the geeks out of the basement and hale them to court.

The first libel suit against a Philippine blog was filed in August that year against the institutional blog of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) by Jonathan Tiongco, a sound engineer presented by then Environment Secretary Michael Defensor in order to question the authenticity of the ‘Hello Garci’ tapes.

In all, Tiongco and his wife Rona would file at least six libel suits against the PCIJ, as well as one case for sedition, all related to the posting by the PCIJ of the ‘Hello Garci’ audio recordings in its institutional blog.

In October that year, the Supreme Court threw out Tiongco’s petition to take down the recordings. The high tribunal said the constitutional right to free expression was paramount, even if it is just in a blog. The court also told Tiongco to seek legal counsel before bringing legal issues to the high court.

The battle won, but the war far from over, a Quezon City court under Judge Ralph Lee later that year issued a 20-day temporary restraining order against the PCIJ blog post on Tiongco’s background. As a result, that post was taken down for that period of time. It was also the first time that a Philippine court had taken action against a blog.

Still unsatisfied, Tiongco and three Quezon City policemen attempted to secure a search warrant against the PCIJ offices in Quezon City in March 2006. Tiongco and his group tried to get warrants from two courts, to no avail.

Not to be outdone, then Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez declared that the PCIJ was being monitored for what he termed as “Illegal posting of wiretapped material” that tends to “incite to sedition.”

Five years later, the “geeks” were still on top; the cases against the PCIJ never prospered, and the ‘Hello Garci’ recordings are still online.

But while the Philippines is still known for having the freest press in Asia, the newest medium of expression – the Internet – is no longer immune from attempts to regulate and control it.

Just this year, then Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral filed a libel case against a blogger named Ella Rose de los Santos for a blog entry that was severely critical of the way her department distributed relief goods after Typhoon Ondoy.

Ella’s blog October 21 2009 entry, entitled “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo,”  immediately went viral as interest over typhoon Ondoy and its aftermath peaked. Most of the online community hailed the entry as an example of citizen journalism, while its detractors decried it as more emotional than factual.

And there have been other cases as well. In 2006, for example, the Yuchengco group filed a libel case against the Parents Enabling Parents (PEP) Coalition, citing what it called defamatory articles accusing the company of mishandling of funds. The articles were posted in the PEP Coalition blog. It was later dismissed by a Makati court.

Another prominent libel case involved technology blogger Abe Olandres, who attracted the suit not because of his blog, but because of his web-hosting company. Several libelous comments were posted in the Internet forum, which happened to be hosted on his server. The suit against Olandres was also dismissed after he was determined to be a mere service provider.

And who could forget the libel case against Bambee de la Paz, who blogged about the “Valley Golf Incident” that had her father Delfin and younger brother Bino in a brawl with a group led by Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman Sr. and his sons. The Pangandamans later challenged De la Paz’s account in court. Pangandaman’s lawyers say the case is still pending.

Attempts to regulate the online community, however, have not all been done through the courts. In 2007, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) announced it was drafting a memorandum circular that, in effect, would require licenses from everyone who is part of any social networking site.

The draft memorandum circular required all “contents, information, applications and/or electronic games providers” of telecommunications facilities and services to secure a license from the NTC for P6,300, subject to renewal.

The memorandum defined content as “all types of contents delivered to/accessed by the users/subscribers such as music, ring tones, logos, video clips, etc.”

The NTC argued that the Internet was covered by the memorandum as part of telecommunications facilities, thereby turning all members of social media networks and virtually anyone who uploads anything on the Net into a “content provider.”

These days, that would mean requiring licenses from more than 11 million Facebook members, and 35 million Friendster account holders. That’s not yet counting other networking sites that enable members to upload video, photos, or plain text, such as YouTube, Flickr, and Multiply.

That could well be why the proposal seems to have died a natural death or relegated to limbo. Yet while nothing has been heard about it in the last three years, it might just – like Luke Skywalker’s father did – resurface and give everyone a shock.  – PCIJ, April 2010