PH libel law violates international law
The cyberlibel conviction of Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. brings to light again a previous finding of the United Nations Human Rights (UNHR) Committee declaring Philippine libel laws to be in violation of an international treaty.
In 1986, the Philippines ratified the international treaty called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). One important provision of this treaty is its Article 19, which provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression” and that “this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” It also states that any penalty for any abuse of the right must be reasonable and necessary.
In 1989, the Philippines also signed the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which meant that Filipino citizens could go to the UNHR Committee to file individual complaints against the Philippine government for violation of their civil and political rights under the ICCPR, if recourse to domestic courts proves futile.
In 2001, Davao City radio broadcaster Alexander Adonis reported in his news program that a local congressman supposedly had an illicit relationship with a married television personality. The congressman filed a criminal case for libel against Adonis. The radio station hired a lawyer to defend Adonis, but the lawyer later withdrew from the case without his client’s knowledge and Adonis ended up getting convicted for libel. The broadcaster spent almost two years in prison.
In 2008, while Adonis was in prison, he hired the Center for International Law (Centerlaw) to represent him. Centerlaw is part of an international alliance advocating the decriminalization of libel. Adonis had already lost his right to appeal, so Centerlaw went to the UNHR Committee to sue the Republic of the Philippines, raising the argument that our libel laws violate international law because its penalty of imprisonment violates the standards of reasonableness and necessity under the ICCPR; that prison penalty should be replaced by civil damages, and; that the threat of imprisonment prompts an extremely inhibitory sense of self-censorship among journalists, because it establishes a climate of fear in which media practitioners become reluctant to publish matters of public interest.
The Philippine government argued that freedom of expression is not absolute and it does not give anyone “unbridled license” to commit libel; that the enjoyment of private reputation is also a constitutional right, and; for criticism against public officials to fall within the ambit of the right to freedom of expression, it must be directed against their official acts, not against their private affairs.
In 2011, the UNHR Committee rendered its decision (technically called a “View”) stating that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” for libel, and that the Philippines violated its treaty obligation under the ICCPR when it imprisoned Adonis (Alexander Adonis v. The Philippines, Communication No. 1815/2008).
In 2012, instead of complying with the UNHR Committee findings, the Philippines passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175), which imposes a longer prison penalty for libel committed through the internet. Centerlaw went to the Supreme Court to question the law by invoking the UNHR Committee View, among others. The high court washed its hands of the case by shoving to Congress the responsibility of amending the law in order to comply with the UNHR Committee findings.
Why can the Philippines defy the UNHR Committee View by imposing prison terms on Ressa and Santos? It’s because there is no mechanism to force the implementation of the UNHR Committee View. It’s similar to the lack of an enforcement mechanism to compel China to comply with the arbitration decision in the West Philippine Sea issue.
The moral standing of the Philippines in accusing China as an international law violator is lessened by its own refusal to comply with the UNHR Committee View. The Philippines must respect its international law obligation to its own citizens by decriminalizing its libel laws.
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