Unlikely hero: Alex Adonis and the fight to decriminalize libel
Photo and video credits by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com
Recently, what could be their biggest breakthrough came when the United Nations Human Rights Committee deemed the country’s criminal libel law "incompatible" with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights, which protects the right to free expression and opinion.
The Philippines has ratified the Covenant. Thus, while the UNHRC resolution may not be legally binding, it is expected to put pressure on the government to push for the decriminalization of libel.
For this development, Filipino journalists owe a debt to one colleague who, ironically, was forced to give up more than two years of his life.
It all started when Alex Adonis, a broadcaster in Davao City, was found guilty of libel in a suit filed against him by then Speaker Prospero Nograles and sentenced to four years in jail.
Atty. Harry Roque Photo by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com
Given how powerful his accuser was, Adonis said the case was lopsided from the start. In the middle of the trial, his counsel suddenly withdrew, leaving him with no representation.
Adonis was no stranger to the risks of the trade, having had his share of near-death experiences.
But nothing, he said, prepared him for jail.
"Sa loob ng Davao Penal Colony, halos mawalan ako ng pag-asa. Hindi ko inaasahan na darating ako sa lugar na iyon (Inside the Davao Penal Colony, I almost lost all hope. I never dreamed I would end up in a place like that)," he recalled.
In jail, he met the toughest characters: hired killers, murderers, gambling lords.
"Hindi natin maiwasan na kapag nasa kulungan ka, sa lugar na kung saan estranghero ka, nasa loob mo ang takot ... lahat ng uri ng mga hardened criminal kasama mo tapos libel lang ang kaso mo (It is unavoidable when you are in jail, where you are a stranger, you carry your fear in you … you are with all sorts of hardened criminals and you are in there just for libel)," he said.
But Adonis was eventually released on parole after serving more than half his sentence.
Soon after he got out, lawyer Harry Roque of the UP Law Center helped Adonis and filed a case with the UNHRC in 2008 questioning the Philippines’ libel law.
In October last year, the UN body issued it verdict. It also decreed that the government compensate Adonis for the time he spent behind bars.
However, for the broadcaster from Davao, compensation is secondary.
“Hindi naman tayo masyadong humihingi. Ang sa akin lang ay ma-vindicate ako. Kasi by the time that I was convicted, masyadong na-turn down ang aking pagkatao na lumalabas na gumagawa-gawa lang ako ng istorya. Hindi naman sana magagawa ‘yung kuwento kung walang nangyaring aksyon. Ika nga, walang apoy na lalabas kung walang nagniningas (I am not asking for much. All I want is vindication. Because by the time I was convicted, my reputation had been so damaged that I was being portrayed as someone who invented his stories. But that story would not have come out if nothing had happened. Like they say, where there is smoke, there is fire)," he said.
He is also urging the Aquino administration to bring the libel law up to international standards.
"Alalahanin ninyo na ang inyong ama ay naging katulad din namin ng hanapbuhay (Please remember your father was once one of us)," he said, addressing President Benigno Aquino III, whose father, former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., used to be a journalist.
For Roque, the UNHRC decision spells "a big win for the freedom of expression."
"Ito ang kauna-unahang pagkakataon kung kailan nagsabi ang UN Human Rights Committee na salungat nga sa freedom of expression itong criminal libel. Bago lumabas itong kasong ito, tanging mga hukuman ng Human Rights sa Europa, Africa, at Amerika ang merong mga desisyon (This is the first time the UN Human Rights Council has ruled that criminal libel is incompatible with freedom of expression. Before this, only human rights bodies in Europe, Africa and America had issued similar decisions)," he said.
"Ito ‘yung international precedent na magsisilbing standard ngayon para sa lahat ng gobyerno sa mundo (This is the international precedent that will serve as a standard for all governments in the world)," he added.
Because of this, Roque said the UNHRC decision should be the first step to decriminalizing libel, adding he is confident the government will comply with the ruling.