Group defends Rappler in online libel case

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 20) — A group of internet freedom advocates defends Rappler in its online libel case, as the embattled news agency faces its latest legal battle.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has issued a subpoena against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, former reporter Reynaldo Santos, and businessman Benjamin Bitanga for violating the anti-cybercrime act.

RELATED: NBI: No link between cases vs. Rappler

Santos and Ressa are to appear at the NBI on January 22.

It stems from the online libel complaint filed at the NBI Cybercrime Division in October 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was named in the May 2012 story of Rappler for supposedly giving favors to impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona.

READ: NBI subpoenas Rappler CEO, 2 others over cybercrime complaint

Lawyer Marnie Tonson of the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance, however, said since the Cybercrime Prevention Act or Republic Act 10175 was enacted in September 2012, months before the publication of the story, the law does not apply to Rappler.

Criminal laws, he said, are not retroactive.

"If people from Rappler would just point out ,'Hey this was first published, it first came on this screen at this date before the law'....So if it's something, an act that's prohibited by the anti-cybercrime law but happened before the enactment of that law then that cannot be," Tonson said.

However, NBI Cybercrime Division chief Manuel Eduarte argued the article falls under the theory of "continuous publication," where it can be assumed that Keng only saw the story after the law was passed.

"Even if it was posted first in 2012, but still can be seen sa time na nagreklamo sila [when they filed the case] or the time of the effectivity of Cybercrime Law. So ang aming presumption as investigation is concerned, they still violated the cybercrime law," he said.

Tonson, however, said the Revised Penal Code does not mention any rule on "first access."

"The Revised Penal Code, on which the Cybercrime Act is based on, (states) it has to be 'first publication.' Not when it was accessed, not when it was seen," she said.

Tonson further said the NBI may argue publication happens on each accessed screen.

"The ephemeral nature of electronic text means it's going to be gone once you go to another site or you turn off the computer. But then when you go back it's there again. The question there is - is that publication? Every time it appears on screen is that publication?" he said.

Tonson said it is an issue that will be ultimately decided by the court should the NBI push through with filing the online libel case against Rappler.

On January 17, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II ordered the NBI to "conduct a case buildup" against Rappler over corporate foreign control issues and possible violations of the anti-dummy law.

Rappler slammed the investigation was a form of harassment and nothing but a fishing expedition.