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UN declares defamation conviction a free expression violation

In a case that could have global implications, the UN Human Rights Committee for the first time has found that jailing a writer for libel represents a violation of freedom of expression, report the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) in the Philippines and the International Press Institute (IPI).

In response to the imprisonment of former radio journalist Alex Adonis in July 2008, the committee declared that the Philippines's criminal libel provision in its penal code is "incompatible" with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory.

In addition to demanding that the Philippines compensate Adonis for his time served in prison, the committee 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."

Further, the committee recommended that libel be decriminalised in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, punishing libel with imprisonment has been used to threaten and ultimately silence critical journalists. Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's husband Jose Miguel Arroyo, for example, filed 11 libel suits against 46 journalists starting in 2006 in an attempt to stop the press from reporting on criticism of his wife.

CMFR hailed the recommendations and urged all press freedom groups to call for their immediate adoption.

"It is now up to the Philippine government to take the steps necessary to decriminalise 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," CMFR said.

IPI press freedom manager Anthony Mills said, "This ruling is a potential watershed [that] could provide critical momentum to efforts aimed at decriminalising defamation in the Philippines and elsewhere."

In 2007, Adonis was given five months to four and a half years in jail for reporting on an alleged affair between then Speaker of the House, Prospero Nograles, and a married woman. The court also ordered him to pay 100,000 Pesos (US$2,400) 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."

The Philippine government now has a 180-day period to report to the UN committee what it has done to implement the view. The committee's views are not binding legal judgments, but national and international tribunals increasingly quote its case law.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, an organisation that helps journalists and independent media outlets defend their rights, said it would now push the European Court of Human Rights "to make an equivalent ruling."

Momentum is building to abolish criminal defamation laws around the world. Last year, the President of Niger became the first head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa, and Mexico's Senate unanimously approved to decriminalise slander and libel.

In the coming months, IPI will announce 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.

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    The United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that the provisions of the country’s Revised Penal Code (RPC) penalizing libel as a criminal offense is “incompatible with Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” to which the Philippines is a signatory.

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