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UNHRC: Philippine criminal libel law violates freedom of expression

Davao broadcaster Alex Adonis (right) was jailed for more than two years pursuant to a conviction for libel in a complaint filed by former Speaker Prospero Nograles. The UNHRC says Philippine criminal libel laws are incompatible with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which recognizes freedom of expression as a human right.

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines - In a landmark decision just recently released, the United Nation Human Rights Commission says Philippine laws criminalizing libel is "incompatible with Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR)", or freedom of expression.

This UNHRC's view, adopted on October 26, 2011, was expressed in line with  a complaint filed by Davao based broadcaster Alex Adonis. Adonis was jailed for more than two years pursuant to a conviction for libel in a complaint filed by former Speaker Prospero Nograles. In a radio broadcast in 2001, Adonis read and dramatized a newspaper report that then Congressman Nograles was seen running naked in a hotel when caught in bed by the husband of the woman with whom he was said to have spent the night with.

In a decision rendered by the Regional Trial Court of Davao, Adonis was sentenced to imprisonment from 5 months and one day to four years, six days and one day imprisonment. In the said decision, the local court concluded: "the evidence was sufficient to prove the authors guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for a malicious, arbitrary, abusive, irresponsible act of maligning the honor, reputation and good name of Congressman Nograles”.

After serving two years in prison, Adonis questioned the compatibility of criminal libel with freedom of expression under Article 19 of the ICCPR. Adonis, through his lawyer, Harry Roque of the UP College of Law and the Center for International Law (CenterLaw), argued that "the sanction of imprisonment for libel fails to meet the standard of necessity and reasonableness. Imprisonment is unnecessary since there are other effective means available for protection for the rights of others."

Adonis also questioned his conviction becasue he was tried absentia when his counsel of record at the RTC withdrew from the case without informing him accordingly.

In ruling in favor of Adonis, the UN body ruled that Adonis rights were violated when he was tried in absentia. Moreover, in ruling that Philippine criminal libel law was inconsistent with freedom of expression, the Committee recalled its General Comment No. 34 which reads: "Defamations laws should not ... stifle freedom of expression. … Penal defamation laws should include defense of truth," adding that "in comments about public figures, consideration should be given to avoiding penalties or otherwise rendering unlawful untrue statements that have been published in error but without malice. In any event, a public interest in the subject matter of the criticism should be recognized as a defense."

"State parties should consider the decriminalization of libel," the UNHRC added.

Adonis' lawyer, Harry Roque, said, "This a very big win for freedom of expression. We expect the Philippine government under President Aquino to comply with the Committee's view and proceed to decriminalize libel and to provide reparations to Adonis for time he spent in prison. No one should be imprisoned for expressing his or her views, full stop."

The Committee ordered the Philippine government to “provide (Adonis) with an effective remedy, including adequate compensation for time served in prison, The State is also under obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations occurring in the future”.

Two Committee members dissented only insofar as the Committee did not expressly order the Philippine government to decriminalize libel. Fabian Omar Salvioli argued that pursuant to Art 2.2 of the Covenant, the "State party undertakes to take all necessary steps, in accordance with constitutional processes, to give effect to right recognized in the Convention." By not ordering the repeal of Philippine libel laws, Salvioli said, "the Committee has missed a clear opportunity expressly and unambiguously to indicate to the State party that it must change its criminal law."

"The Adonis View is the first view of the UN Committee on Human Rights that criminal liable infringes on freedom of expression," Roque said.

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