CHR pushes for decriminalization of libel

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CHR pushes for decriminalization of libel
Supporters and employees of ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast network, hold placards as they join a protest in front of the ABS-CBN building in Manila on Feb. 21, 2020.
AFP / Basilio Sepe

MANILA, Philippines — The Commission on Human Rights called on lawmakers to act on a bill to decriminalize libel as it expressed concern on how the country’s libel laws have been used to clamp down on press freedom.

In a statement Wednesday, the CHR stressed that the Philippine government, as a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has the obligation to protect people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

“When these rights are compromised, especially for journalists and critics, the government also cripples one of its informal feedback mechanisms that serve to inform and improve government policies and decisions,” the commission said.

It cited the cyber libel conviction of Baguio-based journalist and Rappler contributor Frank Cimatu over a social media post against then-Agriculture chief Manny Piñol.

The CHR urged legislators to process the bill filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros that seeks the decriminalization of libel.

The commission said it agrees with the observation that "libel laws have been used and abused by private parties to advance their various interests, and by public personalities to shield themselves from public scrutiny, even on matters of public concern."

Hontiveros’ proposed measure still allows people to institute actions for damages.

Filipino journalists have long called to decriminalize libel, along with the graver cyber libel offense stipulated in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said that libel laws should be decriminalized as these are not compatible with the Bill of Rights stated in the Philippine Constitution and with the ICCPR.

Careful deliberation

The CHR acknowledged that the decriminalization of libel requires "careful deliberation."

“Though libel can be weaponized against free expression, laws against libel remain one of society's safeguards against disinformation,” the commission said.

To combat disinformation, guidelines should be established "so lawful efforts directed against libel would aim to correct erroneous information, instead of applying legal restrictions," it said.

The commission also stressed that government officials and politicians should deal with criticisms by engaging in open discussions and exercising transparency, not by suing for libel.


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