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Media advocates cite UN stand in urging decriminalization of libel

February 17, 2012 8:05pm

Davao broadcaster Alexander Adonis languished in jail for more than two years for reporting on the supposed extramarital affairs of a once very powerful politician. He was convicted after both his publisher and lawyer abandonbed him, leaving him nearly defenseless.

After his release, Adonis has been an advocate to reform libel laws so his experience doesn't befall other journalists.
On July 27, 2001, Adonis, who was working as a broadcaster for Bombo Radyo in Davao City, was asked to verify a tip that former House Speaker Prospero Nograles was caught with his pants down running away from the husband of his alleged mistress inside a Manila hotel.
The broadcaster tried to contact the personalities involved, but was not successful. That same day, he reported about the incident without disclosing any names. The next day, Nograles filed two counts of libel against Adonis for the two shows the report aired.
The charges were based on Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC), which defines libel as a "public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead."
The Regional Trial Court of Davao City acquitted Adonis and his station manager on the first complaint for lack of evidence, but convicted him on the second, saying that even if the allegation were true adultery was a private crime not related to the official duties of the congressman.
He was sentenced to five months and one day to four years, six months and one day, as well as ordered to pay P100,000 for "moral damages" to the victim and another P100,000 for "exemplary damages" to serve "as an example for notorious display of irresponsible reporting."
While his case was pending in court, Adonis fell into a depression and was not able to report for work. His employer stopped paying for his legal expenses and his lawyer withdrew from the case without informing him, which Adonis claimed led to his conviction.
"Sa totoo lang di ko po inaasahan na darating ako sa punto na ito... Trabaho ko lang naman maghatid ng balita," he said during a forum at the University of the Philippines College of Law in Quezon City on Friday.
"They have tried me, they have tested me… With my experience, the more I'm fiercer… This is not my profession, this is my vocation," Adonis emphasized.

Criminal nature of PHL defamation law
Through his lawyer Harry Roque, the broadcaster lodged a complaint with the United Nations (UN) High Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) condemning the "criminal" nature of the country's defamation law.
In a reply last Jan. 10, the UNCHR ruled that Adonis’ imprisonment violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory. 
"Defamation laws must be crafted with care to ensure... that they do not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression. All such laws, in particular penal defamation laws, should include defenses as the defense of truth and they should not be applied with regard to those forms of expression that are not, of their nature, subject to verification," it said.
"At least with regard to comments about public figures, consideration should be given to avoiding penalizing 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.  Care should be taken by state parties to avoid excessively punitive measures and penalties. State parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation 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 added.
The Philippine government should provide Adonis with "an effective remedy," including "adequate compensation" for the time he served in prison, according to UNCHR.
Adonis is just one of many journalists who fell in the cracks of a weak legal protection system covering the exercise of freedom of expression.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines recorded at least 106 cases of journalists who were jailed on libel charges, said its secretary-general Rowena Paraan said that they have.
"Criminal libel has no place in a democratic society. Criminal libel, a tool of the powerful, is alarming and dangerous to the freedom of expression," she said during Friday's forum.
Taking a cue from Adonis' case, Roque and Paraan said now is the time to decriminalize libel in the country.
"The NUJP hopes we build on this victory... The most obvious next step is to push for the decriminalization of libel," said Paraan.
Government is also "under an obligation" to take steps to prevent similar violations occurring in the future, including reviewing the relevant libel legislation, UNCHR said in its letter.
Roque said they plan to seek the help of Justice Sec. Leila de Lima, the former chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, in urging President Benigno Aquino III to certify as urgent the pending bills in Congress seeking to amend the RPC.
"I think we should do the lobby now, we should bring Alex Adonis, show all those in prison, and show her the view," he said.

To decriminalized or not
But Gen delas Armas, a Department of Justice special investigator, asked if there is a need to decriminalize libel or if imprisonment can simply be struck out as punishment for those convicted of libel.
"If we totally decriminalize libel, then people who are affected by media may resort to violence… may just resort to violence instead of going to court," she said in the same forum.
However, Roque argued that if they are going to fix the RPC they should make full use of it.
"If you were to remove the penalty of imprisonment you have to go to Congress. It's so difficult to go to Congress… You might as well decriminalize it and come up with other means to protect private citizens," he said.
Luis Teodoro, former dean of the UP College of Mass Communication, suggested that media practice self-regulation.
"The media must make the necessary steps to make self-regulation work," he said, adding that there is a need to revive several mechanisms that help in self-regulation, like press councils.
"There are mechanisms for this that are in place but the public is hardly aware of them," he said.
Teodoro pointed out the need to improve the education of journalists. "If libel is decriminalized, one of the things to address is the training of journalists," he said.
"Provided all these conditions are in place, [government] should eventually repeal the Revised Penal Code," he added. — VS/HS, GMA News
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