15-year prescriptive period for cyber-libel or 1 year?

Then Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion in the case of Disini v. Secretary of Justice (G.R. No. 203335, February 11, 2014), saying that Section 6 (of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012) increases the prescription periods for the crime of cyber-libel and its penalty to 15 years.

Section 6 provides that all crimes penalized by the Revised Penal Code, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by RA 10175. It further states that the imposable penalty shall be one degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, and special laws.

Crimes and their penalties prescribe. The prescription of a crime refers to the loss or waiver by the State of its right to prosecute an act prohibited and punished by law. It commences from the day on which the crime is discovered by the offended party, the authorities or their agents. On the other hand, the prescription of the penalty is the loss or waiver by the State of its right to punish the convict. It commences from the date of evasion of service after final sentence. Hence, in the prescription of crimes, it is the penalty prescribed by law that is considered; in the prescription of penalties, it is the penalty imposed.

By setting a prescription period for crimes, the State by an act of grace surrenders its right to prosecute and declares the offense as no longer subject to prosecution after a certain period. It is an amnesty that casts the offense into oblivion and declares that the offenders are now at liberty to return home and freely resume their activities as citizens. They may now rest from having to preserve the proofs of their innocence, because the proofs of their guilt have been blotted out.

The Revised Penal Code sets prescription periods for crimes according to the following classification of their penalties:
ARTICLE 90. Prescription of Crimes. — Crimes punishable by death, reclusión perpetua or reclusión temporal shall prescribe in twenty years. 
Crimes punishable by other afflictive penalties shall prescribe in fifteen years. 
Those punishable by a correctional penalty shall prescribe in ten years; with the exception of those punishable by arresto mayor, which shall prescribe in five years. 
The crime of libel or other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year. 
The offenses of oral defamation and slander by deed shall prescribe in six months. 
Light offenses prescribe in two months. 
When the penalty fixed by law is a compound one the highest penalty shall be made the basis of the application of the rules contained in the first, second and third paragraphs of this article.
On the other hand, Article 92 on the prescription of penalties states:
ARTICLE 92. When and How Penalties Prescribe. — The penalties imposed by final sentence prescribe as follows: 
1. Death and reclusión perpetua, in twenty years;
2. Other afflictive penalties, in fifteen years;
3. Correctional penalties, in ten years; with the exception of the penalty of arresto mayor, which prescribes in five years;
4. Light penalties, in one year.
As seen above, before the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the State effectively waives its right to prosecute crimes involving libel. Notably, the prescription period for libel used to be two years, but was reduced to one year through Republic Act No. 4661 on 18 June 1966. Although the law itself does not state the reason behind the reduction, we can surmise that it was made in recognition of the harshness of the previous period, another act of grace by the State.

With the increase of penalty by one degree pursuant to Section 6 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, however, the penalty for libel through information and computer technology (hereinafter referred to as ICT) becomes afflictive under Article 25 of the Revised Penal Code. Accordingly, under the above-quoted provision, the crime of libel through ICT shall now possibly prescribe in 15 years − a 15-fold increase in the prescription period. In effect, the State’s grant of amnesty to the offender will now be delayed by 14 years more. Until a definite ruling from this Court in a proper case is made, there is uncertainty as to whether the one-year prescription period for ordinary libel will also apply to libel through ICT.

Similarly, under Article 92, the prescription period for the penalty of libel through ICT is also increased from 10 years – the prescription period for correctional penalties – to 15 years, the prescription for afflictive penalties other than reclusión perpetua.

Justice Arturo Dizon Brion agreed with Justice Sereno in the same decision, writing his own separate opinion and saying Section 6 is unconstitutional in so far as it increases the penalty for cyber-libel one degree higher for the following reasons:

  1. Section 6 creates an additional in terrorem effect on top of that already created by Article 355 of the RPC;
  2. The increase in penalty also results in the imposition of harsher accessory penalties;
  3. The increase in penalty neutralizes the full benefits of the Law on probation. Effectively threatening the public with the guaranteed imposition of imprisonment and its accessory penalties;
  4. It appears that Section 6 increases the prescription periods for the crime of cyberlibel and for its penalty to fifteen years;
  5. ICT as a qualifying aggravating circumstance cannot be offset by any mitigating circumstances; and
  6. For providing that the use of ICT per se, even without malicious intent, aggravates the crime of libel, Section 6 is seriously flawed and burdens free speech.

These twin increases in both the prescription period for the crime of libel through ICT and in that for its penalty are additional factors in the public’s rational calculation of whether or not to exercise their freedom of speech and whether to exercise that freedom through ICT. Obviously, the increased prescription periods − yet again − tilt the scales, heavily against the exercise of this freedom.

Regrettably, the records of the Bicameral Conference Committee deliberation do not show that the legislators took into careful consideration this domino effect that, when taken as a whole, clearly discourages the exercise of free speech. This, despite the fact that the records of the committee deliberations show that the legislators became aware of the need to carefully craft the application of the one-degree increase in penalty and "to review again the Revised Penal Code and see what ought to be punished, if committed through the computer." But against their better judgment, they proceeded to make an all-encompassing application of the increased penalty sans any careful study. (G.R. No. 203335, February 11, 2014)

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