MANILA - The Philippine Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a controversial cybercrime law penalising online libel is constitutional, amid claims it is intended to curb Internet freedom in one of Asia's most freewheeling democracies.
The court said a section of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 "which penalises online or cyber libel is not unconstitutional", spokesman Theodore Te said.
However the ruling would only cover the original sender of the allegedly libellous material and not the recipients, Te said.
The cybercrime law was passed in 2012, but the high court suspended its implementation after various groups sued to have it declared unconstitutional.
Neri Colmenares, a congressman who was among those who challenged the law, said they may appeal the latest ruling.
"No one should go to prison just for expressing oneself, specially on the Internet, where people express their frustration with government," he said.
President Benigno Aquino signed the law to stamp out cybercrimes such as fraud, identity theft, spamming and child pornography.
But opponents quickly said it gave the government wide powers to curb freedoms on the Internet due to provisions that impose heavy prison terms for online libel.
The law also gives the state power to shut down websites and monitor online activities in a country where major protests have been organised through Facebook and Twitter.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday however "partially granted the relief" sought by the law's opponents when it ruled as unlawful a provision giving the Justice Department powers to "take down" websites or record Internet traffic data in real time.
Lawyer Harry Roque, one of those who petitioned against the law, hailed the decision striking down the powers to take down websites and monitor Internet traffic.
"This is indeed a major victory for privacy and the right of the people to be secure in their communications," he said in a statement.
But he said the fight to nullify the provisions on criminal libel would continue.
Social media users expressed anger at the upholding of the libel provisions.
"Under Cybercrime Law, tweets, likes, shares, comments = crimes. Everyone under surveillance," said activist leader Vencer Crisostomo in a tweet.
Terry Ridon, a congressman representing the youth sector in parliament, said they were unhappy with the ruling on libel and vowed to challenge it.
While the high court entertains appeals, it rarely reverses decisions.
"The fight against e-Martial Law is far from over. We call on everyone to up the ante and once again show our collective dissent against this repressive law," Ridon said.
"While the high court reportedly aimed to strike a balance between the protection of civil liberties and government control, we still believe that the law is potent enough to impede our freedom of expression," he added.