Case Watch: When Telling the Truth May Come with A Prison Sentence
By Zsolt Bobis
In our “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.
Having served a two-year prison sentence on defamation charges and been fined, Alexander Adonis, a radio broadcaster, set out to challenge the Philippine libel law that makes defamation a criminal offense. In his application before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), Adonis v. the Philippines, he argued that his conviction for libel under article 353 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines constituted an unlawful restriction of his right to freedom of expression guaranteed by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The applicant’s claims fell on receptive ears at the committee, which decided that his imprisonment was incompatible with the ICCPR.
Adonis’s prison sentence and pecuniary penalty might seem especially harsh in light of some of the mitigating circumstances in his case. He was convicted for reporting on the alleged adulterous conduct of a congressman with a married TV personality on his radio show, which was criminal under Philippine law. However, by the time the applicant covered the scandal on the radio, the story had already been broken by two national newspapers. Adonis had also tried, in vain, to contact the persons involved and he was careful enough not to mention their names in his show. The Regional Trial Court of Davao City nevertheless found Adonis’s reporting to be of malicious and defamatory nature, considering the congressman’s adultery a private crime and indicating that the defense of truth could not be relied on in this case.
Arguing that the criminalization of libel constituted an unlawful restriction of freedom of expression, Adonis challenged his conviction for defamation, raising five arguments:
- Criminalization of defamation is a disproportionate means of addressing the problem of unwarranted attacks on reputation, as it discourages critical journalism and generates a chilling effect on freedom of expression by creating self-censorship and a climate of fear.
- It does not meet the standards of necessity and reasonableness as there are other effective means available.
- It does not allow for proof of truth as a complete defense, only permitting it under very restricted conditions.
- It prohibits reasonable publication defense.
- It automatically presumes malice in allegedly defamatory statements and the burden of proof is placed on the accused.
In an effort to counter these arguments, the state asserted that the right to freedom of expression could be limited to protect other people’s rights and that the right to a private reputation was one of the most important constitutional rights.
As reflected in its decision of October 26, 2011, the committee was undisputedly more convinced by the applicant’s arguments. In its judgment, UNHRC heavily referenced its recent general comment No. 34 on article 19 of the ICCPR (in the creation of which the Open Society Justice Initiative played an important role), which says defamation laws should not stifle freedom of expression, and therefore, they should include the defense of truth and public interest defense. Furthermore, the committee noted that general comment No. 34 also states that at least in the case of public figures, untrue statements published in error but without malice should not be penalized. UNHRC also referred to the general comment’s call for avoidance of excessive punishments and penalties for libel, decriminalization of defamation or criminalization of only the most serious cases, on the ground that “imprisonment is not an appropriate penalty” (para. 8.9, quoting para. 47 of general comment No. 34).
In light of the above, the committee concluded that Adonis’s imprisonment was incompatible with the ICCPR, and therefore found a violation of article 19(3). It also obligated the state to provide the applicant an effective remedy, adequate compensation and to take steps to prevent similar violations. The decision on the article 19 violation was unanimous, although two members of the committee dissented on another issue, namely the extent of the duty of the Philippines to amend its domestic legislation to make it compatible with the ICCPR under article 2(2). This issue was not tackled by the majority judgment, although the fact that the libel law which led to these violations is still in effect today, more than half a year after the decision, indicates that the dissenting judges may have been correct.
A summary of Adonis v. the Philippines and other cases from the 103rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee is provided by the Open Society Justice Initiative, in order to bring the decisions of global human rights tribunals to the widest possible audience.
Until September 2021, Zsolt Bobis was a senior associate policy officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative.