The Revised Penal Code’s provisions penalizing libel is “incompatible with Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights”, or freedom of expression. This was the View expressed by the Human Rights Committee in a View adopted during the 103rd session of the UN Body. The Committee is a treaty monitoring body created by the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has power to declare that a State party to the Convention is in breach of its obligations as provided in the Covenant.
The View was expressed in a complaint filed by Davao based Alexander Adonis who was jailed for more than two years pursuant to a conviction for libel . In his radio broadcast, Adonis read and dramatized a newspaper report that then Congressman and former Speaker Prospero 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. Davaoenos have since referred to this as the “burlesque” king incident. 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 decided that Adonis was guilty of “malicious, arbitrary, abusive, irresponsible act of maligning the honor, reputation and good name of Congressman Nograles”.
After having served two years in prison, Adonis questioned the compatibility of libel with freedom of expression under Art 19 of the ICCPR. He argued that the sanction of imprisonment for libel meets 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. He also argued that it was not a reasonable restriction because it does not admit proof of truth as a complete defense but only allows it under very restricted conditions..
In ruling in favor of Adonis, the UN Body ruled 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 x x x stifle freedom of expression. … Penal defamation laws should include defense of truth. x x” 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”
As counsel for Adonis in the UN, I believe that the Committee’s view is a very big win for freedom of expression. It’s a step towards the right direction where no person should be held criminally responsible for the exercise of a cherished freedom. Hopefully, President Noynoy Aquino’s administration will 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 the author 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”. Hence, by not ordering the repeal of Philippine libel laws, Salvioli argued that “ 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.