Global Freedom of Expression

Romel Bagares: Brief Background to Contemporary Practice on Free Expression in the Philippines

Key Details

  • Region
    Asia and Asia Pacific
Following is the introduction of Romel Bagares’ presentation for the 2016 Justice for Free Expression Conference. Download the full pdf version below.

The Philippines is known for its freewheeling press in a region where governments continue to repress political opinion and expression. It has a constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and of expression through provisions drawn from the American constitution and jurisprudence. It is a signatory and party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is the only Southeast Asian country that has ratified the ICCPR’s Additional Protocol I allowing the Individual Complaints mechanism of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Yet it is a country that has to grapple with its own share of unhappy ironies. While it continues, if sometimes in a haphazard fashion, a tradition of American-style journalism, it is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work in, with many journalists being gunned down in the line of duty.

And despite a recent view of the UN Human Rights Committee in the case of Adonis v. Republic of the Philippines (2010, a case litigated by Centerlaw) in which the UN body held that Philippine criminal libel is inconsistent with the country’s obligations under Art. 19 of the ICCPR, in 2014, the Philippine Supreme Court, in a constitutional challenge – the Disini case, en banc, G.R. No. 20335, 11 February 2014 – to the new Philippine Cybercrime law, upheld the constitutionality of both traditional libel and cyber libel (with the latter imposing heavier penalties than the former). It however said there is no intermediary liability in libel.

At the same time it expanded protections under the public figure doctrine, holding that in the case of public figures complaining of defamation, they must hurdle an expanded actual malice test in which even the gross or extreme negligence by journalists is not actual malice.

The same Decision also declared as unconstitutional (a) website “take down” or “blocking” powers given to the justice department; and (b) real-time traffic data collection without the benefit of a court.

With the prosecution for cyber libel having been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, the trend that emerges is that it is being used by politicians and corporations to challenge the contrarian discourses of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders –and even of ordinary citizens.


Romel Regaldo Bagares

Lawyer and Executive Director, Center for International Law, Manila, Philippines