International jurists concerned by proposed tweak to Charter’s free expression provision

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The Black Friday rally for freedom of the press and expression at the Boy Scout Circle in Quezon City.

MANILA, Philippines — A global organization of judges and lawyers has warned the House of Representatives against adopting a proposed amendment to the Constitutional provision covering freedom of expression and the press, saying this “would bring the Philippines into breach of its international human rights obligations.”

Section 4, Article III of the 1987 Constitution states: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

But subcommittee 2 of the committee on constitutional amendments proposed an insertion that would change the provision to read: “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“we urge the sub-committee to remove the phrase ‘responsible exercise’ as a precondition for the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly as it is incompatible with the obligations of the Philippines under international human rights law,” Frederick Rawski, regional director for Asia and the Pacific of the International Commission of Jurists, told Southern Leyte Representative Roger Mercado, chairman of the constitutional amendments committee, in a letter.

“The proposed amendment, if adopted, would bring the Philippines into breach of its international human rights obligations. This is because the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly are protected under international law, while the proposed qualification of ‘responsible exercise’ is not,” he said.

“Qualifying these human rights with exceptions not recognized under international law is incompatible with the Philippines’ international obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it has been a State Party since 1986,” Rawski added.

The ICJ, established in 1952, counts “60 distinguished judges and lawyers from all legal traditions and regions of the world,” including retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Adolfo Azcuna. It “works to advance the understanding of the respect for the rule of law and the legal protection of human rights throughout the world.”

Media and freedom of expression groups and advocates have also protested the proposed revision to Section 4, Article III.

Rawski said the only restrictions to free expression are the “narrow circumstances” defined in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR, “as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals

Likewise, any restriction to the right of peaceful assembly, which is covered by Article 21 of the ICCPR, is limited to “those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Thus, requiring free expression and assembly to be “reasonable” would “effectively be destructive of the right, since it could disallow for the expression of a wide range of ideas.”

Rawski also pointed out that UN Human Rights Committee, which is tasked to interpret the ICCPR, has said “when a State party imposes restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”

The term “responsible exercise,” said Rawski, “is so vague and ambiguous that it will not enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly” and “would also give persons tasked to execute this law the unfettered discretion to determine what is ‘reasonable’ in an individual’s exercise of freedom of expression and assembly.”

READ THE LETTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF JURISTS: