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On the Occasion of the Training Seminar on Reporting on Human Rights and Extra-Judicial Killings Organized by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalists (PCIJ),

Tagaytay City, 13 March 2009, 1:00pm to 3:30pm

Perspectives on How the Media Covers Human Rights, Armed Conflicts Between the Military and Rebels, and Extr a-Judicial Killings: Fostering A Stronger Culture of Investigative Journalism

A Paper Submitted by:
Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines

I have once an opportunity to say that media is but an instrument. And I reiterate this now. Media, in itself, is but a tool, albeit a very powerful one. So powerful that it has the power to build and destroy anyone and anything. Because of this immense potential, the utilization of this fourth estate must be placed in morally responsible hands. With the proverbial pens in their hands, media practitioners have immense power and huge responsibility as well – the obligation, as duty-holders, to stand as the people’s protector against human rights violations. They stand as human rights advocates in their own right.

My own personal firm belief in the power of media is the reason why we, in the CHR, have made it a policy to make our public inquiries into controversial issues and incidents open and accessible to the members of the media. By maintaining a culture of transparency, we in the Commission can proudly and honestly say that the resolutions we issue are based on findings of facts and conclusions of law that are substantiated by the evidence on record. By inviting the media and, through them, the public , to witness the hearings , we are able to instill in the Commission the discipline of avoiding making empty pronouncements that we cannot support or justify and, hence, we are able to maintain the credibility of this independent Constitutional body.

Discussing now the CHR’s perspectives on “how the media covers human rights, armed conflicts and extrajudicial killings,” let it be stated, at the outset, that although the question of “how” the media covers human rights issues is a very important concern, the very fact that human rights issues are being reported on and are being discussed in public fora is, in itself, a major headway towards human rights promotion and protection. The biggest enemy of the human rights movement is the absence of reporting, or the lack of media coverage of human rights issues and events, and not the so-called “negative publicity” or disagreements or differences of points-of-view among the shareholders. For as long as human rights concerns are being talked about, for as long as they are placed squarely in the consciousness of the duty-holders and rights-holders, the human rights movement is kept alive.

There are times when knowing what is happening is more important than understanding why things are unfolding as they are. By raising awareness and consciousness about the human rights issues, we could together take measures to put an end to atrocities – such as extrajudicial killings, armed conflict and the like – sooner rather than later.

This is where the effective use of all available media could prove crucial. As I have once said during my early days in the Commission, even if we cannot, for instance, prevent armed conflicts from breaking out, at the very least, by training our collective lenses on the actions of our political leaders with the concomitant threat of being held accountable, we could constrain them to take only those measures that they could reasonably justify.

Take, for example, what came out of the major media coverage of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA AD), which occupied the Filipinos’ minds but a few months ago. Because of the amount of publicity it gained, and because the opinion and side of stakeholders were heard, the executive department was constrained to take a second hard look at its contents, which eventually led to the discarding of an “agreement” that was found to be contrary to the rights of, among others, our indigenous brothers and sisters in Mindanao. As reported, “Closing the door firmly on the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government and the Moro Islamic Front (MILF), President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said …that regardless of what the Supreme Court (SC) decides on the matter, the government will not sign it.”

The same thing could be said about the media coverage of the armed conflict taking place in Mindanao . Although major clashes have not been avoided, and minor ones are perhaps even now taking place, the quick response of the media in covering these outbreaks of hostilities may conceivably be credited for why, at least, they do not last for weeks or months on end. Because these events are covered immediately, and even real-time and on-the-ground reportings are done, both sides of the hostilities are pressured into ending actual combat or, at least, they are alerted that the eyes of the nation, nay even the world, are on them and, thus, accountability is a very real prospect. For whatever reason, the media plays a key role in urging both sides to go back the negotiating table.

On the matter of suspected incidents of extralegal killings, on two recent incidents, the media has played a more direct and active role, which placed some members in the limelight. Because of the serendipitous presence of reporters and camera men at the “right” time and at the “right” place, the nation was able to view video recordings of two separate shooting incidents: the Parañaque and EDSA alleged shootout s , similar to the video taken of the Ortigas shooting way back in 2005. These videos are not just key pieces of potential evidence, but they have also functioned as eye-openers to the public, making them aware of possibly fatal shortcomings in the standard operating procedures followed by our law enforcers.

However, as much as we commend and admire these efforts and accomplishments, we, in the Commission, believe that media can do more. Specifically, a stronger culture of “investigative journalism” can still be developed and nurtured.

When we speak of “investigative journalism” people are usually reminded of the Watergate scandal and how two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, altered the landscape of American presidential and even legal history. Those familiar with the work of John Grisham may even be reminded of the book The Pelican Brief . In other words, the concept is usually connected to the idea of cloak and dagger work. Hence, people are aware of the potentially high price of doing investigative journalism work. And, for this, we the Filipino people are immensely grateful for your daily sacrifice. However, we also know you will continue pursuing such work because the potential dividends are high – it could change history, government, our laws and, perhaps, our very notion of morality.

Therefore, we, in the Commission on Human Rights, suggest the fostering of a stronger culture of investigative journalism – the kind of reporting that is pro-active and not just reactive. Where there are no answers forthcoming from the people who are duty-bound to provide them, it is up to us, the defenders of human rights, to go out and look for those answers.

For instance, in anticipation of the upcoming election year, and in light of the impending vacancies in the Supreme Court and other appointive positions, we urge the members of the media to help the Filipino people exercise their right of suffrage and their right to responsible representation in government by investigating the backgrounds of these candidates. Of course, there are bodies who are specifically tasked to ensure the integrity and capability of these potential candidates and nominees, but it never hurts to have countless watchdogs.

Also, we urge the media to help us keep the names and faces of victims of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings alive in the consciousness of the nation by making inquiries and investigations into “cold cases.” It is said that the Filipinos have short memories – this is precisely why a culture of impunity persists in our country. Help us in keeping these issues alive and in bringing those responsible to justice.

Everyday we find ourselves getting more and more convinced that corruption is rampant in our country, yet there is still a lack of accountability enforced by a demoralizingly low rate of prosecution and conviction. You, the media, have the power to change all that. Prove that the media still deserves the status of being called the fourth estate.

The reason why I keep emphasizing the power and essential role of media in human rights protection and promotion is because protection can only be had when a vast segment of stakeholders are aware of human rights issues. On the other side of the battle for human rights protection, where the same rights are violated, it is critical that knowledge and information is limited and that very few people are not only unaware of the violations, but are unaware as well of the most basic tenets of human rights.

In a recent speech to the Barangay Human Rights Center of the CHR, I discussed briefly an illustrative example culled from guerilla warfare tactics. To defend a bridge essential to a military supply line, how many soldiers would we need? Ten, perhaps? Twenty? More likely, an entire battalion of hundreds of soldiers. To destroy the bridge, how many guerillas would it take to plant and detonate a bomb? Only one.

In a more relevant example to our own experience, the same numerical discrepancy is apparent. In the bomb attacks on the MRT-3 and LRT-1 during the term of former President Estrada, how many policemen would have been needed to effectively prevent the perpetrators from carrying out their nefarious plan? Two in every train car? A dozen at every train station? Several more at the bag inspection desk? Multiplied by the number of train cars, trains, stations and inspections desks, easily the number would reach hundreds. On the other hand, how many bombers did it take to kill so many innocent commuters and cripple the train network? Two. One on the MRT-3 line, and another on the LRT-1 line.

This is the inequity we face for standing on this side of the fence, in defens e of human rights. To defend a supply line bridge, infrastructure, and even human rights, we need an obscenely large margin of defenders over the number of violators. We need everyone to be on our side because weakness in our numbers so easily gives violators the opportunity to strike at the heart of human rights protection.

It doesn't matter where the perpetrators come from, whether from private armies of political clans, rogue policemen or soldiers, from shady private enterprise, drug-dealers, smugglers or what have you. Among themselves, they need no affirmation from one another to perpetuate human rights violations. They need no collaboration.

To protect human rights, however, requires the contribution of everyone. Victims, witnesses, human rights professionals, state security forces and the public at large must all be informed, aware and committed. The role of the media in delivering critical information on human rights issues, abuses and the efforts to curb them is essential.

Coverage of human rights issues should include more than reactive reporting of violations. There is tremendous value in bringing about awareness in issues that have potential human rights repercussions. An example of this is the coverage of protests over the proposed revival of the Bataan Nuclear Plant facility. C overage of the protest actions must include a discussion of the human rights issues involved, such as the right of people to development, the right of a potentially affected community to participation and the right to safe living conditions, among others. Another issue that has yet to have concrete and tangible impact on the human rights landscape is the pending draft of the CHR Charter, now being studied and modified by the Legislature. Issues such as the expansion of CHR powers pto include economic, social and cultural rights is a tremendously ground-breaking matter. Also the inclusion of what appear to be quasi-judicial powers or auxiliary powers in aid of CHR’s investigative mandate will come a way at eradicating the notion of a “toothless” tiger.

In addition, public awareness on the progress of implementation of international treaties on human rights plays a huge role in placing pressure on the State to commit to implementation. Recent public events on the UN Convention on Anti-Corruption serve as the impetus for media to convey to the public the contents of the convention, and the status of implementation.

Rights are plentiful, as embodied in statute, forum and international. It is essential that everyone is aware of the rights granted by all instruments so that where there are violations, people are also unmistakably aware that detrimental acts are indeed violations, thus stirring public opinion and debate. One terse example of general public ignorance is how refugees in armed conflict or natural calamities lament that children are unable to attend school. Yet, from a reading of international instruments on internally displaced persons, it is not only lamentable, but schooling provided for displaced children is demandable. The characterization of demandability has never been conveyed in news reporting.

The killing of civilians during armed conflict had been the most reported and publicly disseminated human rights issue during the recent armed conflict in Lanao and Saranggani. Protection of civilians is of obvious, paramount importance. Yet, there are dozens of rights involved in the whole theater of conflict last year in Mindanao .

Reports on the TRO petitioned for by local government officials to put a stop to the MOA-AD had lacked the essential emphasis on the importance of the right to public participation. The evacuation of civilians lacked the emphasis on the right to safe passage in times of armed conflict, merely reported as civilians caught in the crossfire.

It may seem like splitting hairs, or a futile exercise in stating the obvious – but it is not, I assure you. The importance of at least a modicum of human right understanding, comprehension of jargon, and familiarity with instruments in media reporting spells the difference between calling a particular situation lamentable as opposed to an outright violation of demandable rights.

“Lamentable” makes the public sad. “Outright violation” makes the public indignant. To be able to spur the debate we are looking for, to gather the critical mass of human rights supporters, we do not need people to shake their heads when they read the newspapers or watch the evening news. We need them to feel enough indignation, enough for them to email the editors, to text in during live news broadcasts, to discuss it with their children over the dinner table, to bring it up during coffee breaks at the office, and to make them remember it when the time comes for them to elect public officials.

Especially in very complex human rights situations, such as that of armed conflict, human rights reporting shouldn't just get an equitable share on the front pages. It must have a precision in language that captures all the human rights issues. For this reason, news writers must also train themselves to be versed in human rights terminology and instruments in order to accurately report human rights issues.

At this point, with waning incidence of Extralegal Killings in the context of politically motivated murders, media reporting must be able to adjust to the ever-evolving human rights landscape. A year or two ago, heavy coverage of Writ of Amparo and Habeas Corpus cases littered the front pages. Yet, the status of these cases, most of which are in limbo, do not get the attention that is crucial in apprising the public of the effectiveness of efforts to combat extralegal killings.

In the meantime, while past material for the front pages become stale, tactics for crimes of impunity have changed. Frivolous prosecution of leftist leaders did manage to hit the front page news. But what about the status of their detention? Many languish in jails at the moment on charges that have yet to be sufficiently resolved in various courts.

On this score, we are not asking the media to be pro-leftist, as the CHR has been accused of in the past. What we seek from the media is balanced and consistent reporting in order for the public to be made aware of the acts of government in detaining leftist leaders, and judge for themselves if in fact such prosecutions are valid. The validity, however, cannot be determined in the first stanza. We have to see the follow through to these detentions. We have to see if the prosecutions are not shams. We have to see if the judges expeditiously resolve the cases. All of these can only be made known if news reporting persistently follows the issue to its conclusion.

In conclusion, I must put on record the value that the CHR places on its relationship with the media. As things now stand, its alliance with the media is one of the most important instruments in the arsenal of the Commission in advocating for the protection, promotion and fulfillment of the human rights of all. We need to strengthen such an alliance, and we have to mutually educate one another.