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Thursday, 02 February 2012

UN: Philippines Journalist Defamation Conviction a Violation of Free Speech

Rights Committee Rules in Favour of Imprisoned Reporter 

By: Scott Griffen, IPI Associate

Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III addresses the 65th General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 24, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand.

VIENNA, 2 Feb. 2012 - In a landmark ruling that could have global implications, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has found that the conviction of a Philippines journalist on charges of criminal defamation violated the journalist's right to free expression.

The Committee said that the nearly five-year prison sentence imposed on Alexander Adonis of Bombo Radyo in Davao City was "incompatible" with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to the official text of the UNHRC decision.

The case stemmed from a 2001 broadcast in which Adonis reported on an alleged affair between a Philippine congressman, then-Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles, and a married woman.

According to the Committee's report, Nograles that same year filed a libel complaint against Adonis in response to the story.  In 2007 a Davao City court sentenced Adonis to a prison term of five months to four-and-a-half years.  The court also ordered him to pay 100,000 pesos (approx. 1,800 Euros) to the congressman for "moral damages" and imposed an additional 100,000 peso fine to "serve as an example for notorious display of irresponsible reporting".

In his filing with the UNHRC, Adonis asserted that the libel provisions (Sections 353 and 354) of the Philippines Revised Criminal Code unreasonably infringed upon the right to free speech. The current law explicitly presumes malice in all defamatory statements and in nearly all cases rejects defences of truth or public interest.  

The UNHRC appeared to agree with those contentions. In addition to demanding that the Philippine state compensate Adonis for his time served in prison, the Commission held that Manila was "under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations occurring in the future, including by reviewing the relevant libel legislation."

In its decision, the UNHRC also recalled its General Comment 34, adopted in July 2011, which urges states to "consider the decriminalization of defamation".
The International Press Institute (IPI) has been a leading advocate for abolishing criminal defamation laws across the globe, and raised the issue with Philippine officials during a press freedom mission to the country in September 2011.  The Philippine government last year began the process of rewriting its current criminal code, which entered into force in 1932.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: "This ruling is a potential watershed which could provide critical momentum to efforts aimed at decriminalising defamation in the Philippines and elsewhere. Criminal defamation laws have no place in an open, democratic society. We urge the Philippine government to amend its criminal code in line with the Committee's ruling and set an example for other nations considering repeal of such laws."

The UNHRC has given the Philippine government 180 days to provide "information about the measures taken to give effect to the Committee's views".  

IPI will announce in the coming months a major campaign to abolish criminal defamation laws in the Caribbean. The campaign will seek to highlight the ways in which such laws can be abused by prominent figures to squelch critical coverage in order to protect their economic interest and maintain power.