by Melanie Y. Pinlac
Criminal libel is one of the most abused means to suppress free expression and press freedom in the Philippines. The fear of possible imprisonment and the imposition of fines has on many occasions silenced press criticism of government officials and even the reporting of matters of public interest.
Journalists and media advocacy groups like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have called for the decriminalization of libel for decades. They have asked Congress to amend the provisions on libel of the 82-year-old Revised Penal Code (RPC), Article 355 of which states that “Libel by means of writing or other similar means” is punishable with a minimum of six months and one day imprisonment (prision correccional) and a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000. Articles 353 to 359 of the RPC deal with defamation (libel and slander).
By far the most significant development in the Philippine campaign to decriminalize libel is the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (UNHRC) October 2011 declaration that the criminal sanction for libel in the Philippines is “excessive” and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in which the Philippines is a signatory.
The UNHRC was acting on the April/July 2008 complaint filed by broadcaster Alexander “Lex” Adonis, who spent almost two years in jail after being convicted in absentia in a libel complaint filed by then Davao City 1st District and House Speaker Prospero Nograles. Adonis filed the complaint, of which both the CMFR and NUJP were co-signatories, through his counsel Harry Roque.
Branch 14 of the Davao City Regional Trial Court (RTC) had sentenced Adonis to imprisonment of a minimum of five months and one day to a maximum of four years, six months and one day and to pay a fine of P100,000 in January 2007. (The other libel case against Adonis and the station manager was dismissed.) Adonis was tried in absentia since the court deemed his failure to attend consecutive scheduled hearings and his lawyer’s withdrawal from the case as a waiver of his right to defend himself.
Nograles filed libel complaints against Adonis, then Bombo Radyo station manager Dan Vicente, and the Manila-based tabloid Abante Tonite for publishing reports that Nograles and his alleged mistress had been caught in a hotel by the latter’s husband.
UNHRC asked the Philippine government to review its libel law because it is incompatible with Article XIX, paragraph 3 of the ICCPR.
Quoting its General Comment No. 34 which detailed the application of Article XIX: Freedoms of opinion and expression, UNHRC reiterated that “States parties should consider the decriminalisation of defamation 113 and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty. It is impermissible for a State party to indict a person for criminal defamation but then not to proceed to trial expeditiously – such a practice has a chilling effect that may unduly restrict the exercise of freedom of expression of the person concerned and others.”
The Committee also said the Philippines was in violation of Articles 14, paragraph 3 and 19 of the ICCPR for failing to notify Adonis of the resumption of the proceedings and of his lawyer’s withdrawal of representation which resulted to his trial in absentia.
It asked the Philippine government to report within 180 days whether it had complied or not with the Committee’s suggestions.
Review of libel laws
Press freedom organizations and journalists’ groups in the Philippines hailed the UNHRC decision, and called on the Aquino government to comply with the order to remove criminal sanctions for libel.
“It is now up to the Philippine government to take the steps necessary to decriminalize libel and prevent similar occurrences, to cause the immediate dismissal of all pending cases of criminal libel, as well as to compensate Adonis and every other journalist who has been imprisoned under the provisions of the Philippine libel law,” said the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) in a statement. CMFR is the technical and administrative secretariat of FFFJ.
The NUJP said in a separate statement that “With the UNHRC’s findings, we challenge the Aquino administration, which has time and again pledged to uphold and protect our rights and liberties, to make good on this, at least partially, by pushing for the decriminalization of libel and ensuring that no more laws abridging the freedom of expression be passed.”
(Aside from being co-signatories of Adonis, CMFR and NUJP had also filed a habeas corpus petition in behalf of Adonis in 2008, after the refusal of then Davao Penal Colony to release the broadcaster despite a “discharge on parole” order from the Department of Justice’s Board of Pardon and Paroles (DOJ-BPP) in December 2007 and a release order from the Davao City RTC Branch 14.)
The Philippine government has yet to issue an official statement on the UNHRC views in the Adonis case. But a review of the Revised Penal Code and other penal laws in the Philippines began in April 2011 with the creation of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Code Committee (CCC). The CCC is headed by DOJ Asec. Geronimo Sy.
In a Feb. 8 interview with the PJR Reports, Sy said the CCC had initial discussions on libel, and is planning to hold focus group discussions with concerned parties.
“This will be fully consulted because there is a school of thought that instead of the traditional blood libel approach, there should be a newer liberal approach to libel in terms of protection of free speech. Of course the other part is balance in the sense that in the Philippines we still have to have media responsibility,” Sy said, adding however that “Presently the direction is not to totally make libel ‘scot free.’ Because you cannot just publish anything and destroy people’s reputation.”
The CCC will come out with the proposed Book 1 of the new criminal code by March 31, 2012. Book 1 of the current RPC tackles “General Provisions regarding the Date of Enforcement and Application of the Provisions of this Code, and regarding the Offenses, the Persons Liable and the Penalties”.
Meanwhile, there are pending bills in both Houses of Congress which seek to amend Articles 353 to 359 of the RPC. For decades, some district representatives and senators have filed bills decriminalizing libel, but none has so far passed Congress. The online Information Systems of both Houses state that those bills are pending at the committee level.