February 17, 2012 · Posted in: General
IN THE PHILIPPINES, a journalist can be thrown in jail for what he writes or says, no matter if it is factual or correct, so long as he fails to prove the absence of malice.
This is a curious and unfortunate fact of life for members of the fourth estate in a country long touted to have one of the freest presses in Asia.
This, Davao broadcaster Alexander Adonis learned the hard way. Adonis spent more than two years in a jail cell for reading on air a newspaper report of a scandal allegedly involving a local politician.
Late last year, Adonis finally got justice – belated certainly, but justice nonetheless.
In October 2011, United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that Adonis’s rights under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were violated, and the Philippines is obliged to compensate him for his incarceration. Interestingly, the Philippines is also the only country in Southeast Asia that ratified the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
The UN body further declared that the Philippines is “also under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future, including by reviewing the relevant libel legislation.”
The ruling is considered groundbreaking as it is the first decision by the UN body that categorically states Philippine libel law to be incompatible with freedom of expression under international law. It declared that the Philippines is “under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future, including by reviewing the relevant libel legislation.”
What this means is that the UN is now telling the Philippine government to take immediate steps to decriminalize the crime of libel.
The ruling also paves the way for other journalists who have been jailed in the past to claim compensation for their imprisonment. The Philippines, said the UN ruling, is under the obligation to provide Adonis with “adequate compensation for the time spent in prison.”
The UN ruling was based on a case filed by Atty. Harry Roque of the Center for International Law in behalf of Adonis. Roque argued that the conviction of Adonis was a violation of his right to free expression. His jail sentence was also an unreasonable kind of punishment for the crime of libel, Roque argued.
For Adonis, it all began in July 2001, when he read a newspaper report about a prominent lawmaker’s alleged “illicit” affair with a married woman in his radio program. Three months later, Adonis was charged with libel by the lawmaker, then House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles who would eventually assume the Speakership of the lower chamber.
Without the benefit of competent legal counsel nor substantial financial backing, the Davao City regional Trial Court convicted Adonis of libel – a criminal offense in the Philippines — and sentenced him to four-and-a-half years in prison in January 2007. He served two years of his sentence behind bars during which time he suffered sleepless nights worrying about his survival in prison and his children’s schooling. He also battled with tuberculosis, which he acquired in jail.
He completed the rest of his sentence on probation.
In 2008, during Adonis’s second year in jail, lawyer Harry L. Roque Jr. of the Center for International Law (CENTERLAW) elevated the case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), arguing that Adonis’s conviction is “an unlawful restriction of his right to freedom of expression.”
The UN ruling was handed down late last year. Then, in a roundtable discussion with journalists and media groups at the University of the Philippines College of Law today, Adonis took center stage to talk about his plight, the success of his crusade, and its implications on other Filipino journalists.
UNHRC gave the Philippines 180 days to submit a report in measures it had taken to address the concerns raised in the ruling.
While the UNHRC decision might be a belated victory for Adonis, it is considered a huge victory for decriminalizing libel – currently one of the major impediments to freedom of expression.
Adonis, who is now back on board hosting two daily programs over RMN Davao, says he is as hard-hitting as ever. He says, “Kung ako ay bumagsak dahil sa pagkabilanggo, mawawalan ng panghahawakan ang mga kasamahan ko sa trabahong ito para kunin ang katotohanan at ipaalam sa taong-bayan.” (If I let myself be defeated by my imprisonment, my colleagues will have nothing to hold on to in continuing to pursue the truth and let the public know.)