The media and human rights (Updated)

By Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 28-05-2012

A PHILIPPINE delegation headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has left the country for Geneva, Switzerland to attend the  second cycle of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the human rights situation of the Philippines and to defend the Philippine human rights record.

The UPR is one of the mechanisms the UN has created to evaluate the state of compliance of signatory countries with international human rights covenants. As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Philippine compliance is evaluated every four years. The first review of the Philippines was in 2008.

The 2012 review of Philippine compliance with these covenants on May 29 comes a week after the US-based Human Rights Watch urged UN member-states to “see through the Philippine government’s rhetoric and question the lack of progress on accountability over the past four years.

In 2008, the member-countries of the UN Human Rights Council proposed 17 steps the Philippine government could take to improve the country’s human rights record. The then Arroyo administration accepted 11 of the recommendations. The most outstanding was “to completely eliminate torture and extrajudicial killings” and “intensify efforts to carry out investigations and prosecutions on extrajudicial killings and punish those responsible.” HRW argues that no significant progress along these lines has taken place since.

The U.S. State Department also weighed in on the state of human rights in the Philippines through its  Country Report. It noted that the Philippine government investigated and prosecuted only “a limited number” of human rights abuses in 2011, thus raising concerns about the persistence of impunity, or the exemption from prosecution and punishment of wrong-doers. Among the worst human rights abuses, said the Report, were extrajudicial killings, the torture of detainees by security forces, violence against leftist and human rights activists, enforced disappearances, warrantless arrests, the murder of journalists, and death squad killings.

The harassment, abduction, enforced disappearance and murder of leftists by State actors had been taking place even before 1972. But human rights as an issue gained some prominence only during the (Ferdinand) Marcos dictatorship, during which arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings were among the police and military’s most favored means of suppressing protest and armed resistance. Significantly, it was the alternative media that called attention to the savaging of human rights during the Marcos regime.

On the other hand, the killing of journalists on the scale the country has witnessed since 1986 is a relatively new phenomenon. Not only the human rights of political activists have been and are violated, however. Torturing crime suspects into confessing, and/or interrogating them without benefit of counsel, are standard police practice, as has been established again and again by numerous, well-documented cases. In certain places in the Philippines, the extrajudicial killing of suspected drug dealers and even users is widely known, and has been noted by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other human rights groups.

The measures that have been proposed and implemented to minimize if not halt human rights abuses, among them the training of security forces in human rights compliance, have not met with much success. The violations are driven by ideological bias and conditioning, which includes the deeply rooted belief that violating the rights of  such individuals as political and even human rights activists may not be legal, but is nevertheless necessary and justified in defense of State as well as personal interest (the most egregious human rights violators are after all promoted and otherwise rewarded). Parallel to this bias is  a social one: the unarticulated but nevertheless very real sense that the rights of the  poor and powerless can similarly be violated with impunity, hence the use of torture to beat confessions out of suspects in ordinary crimes, and even their murder or “salvaging” as it is known in the Philippine archipelago of ironies.

Social and ideological bias, as reflections of the same biases in the larger society, are further nurtured and sustained by such State institutions as military and police academies, the bureaucracy, and the courts, where both ideological as well as social bias, as reflections of the same biases in the larger society, are firmly entrenched and continuously reinforced.

In contrast, the role of the dominant (or “mainstream”) media in sustaining these biases is unremarked. By force of the habits of uncritical thought as well as malice, despite their seeming differences (that one is for the administration, this one against), the major media organizations share a common commitment to demonizing political dissenters who, in the same manner that “fundamentalism” has been  corrupted and made synonymous with terrorism by the media, are seldom mentioned without the pejorative adjective “militant.” The same media organizations also assume  the poor and powerless to be ignorant and probably criminal, and by implication fair game for ridicule and marginalization, and even torture and elimination once suspected of criminal activity.

The wealthy and powerful are on the other hand not only exalted, but are even presumed, by virtue of their status as high officials, for example, to possess  entitlements beyond the presumption of innocence by virtue of their  nobility, intelligence and all those other attributes neither wealth nor power alone makes possible. This was evident from day one of the Corona trial, for example, when both print and broadcast media echoed the views of such disciples of entitlement as Miriam Defensor Santiago.

The bias is driven by the political and economic interests that control the dominant media, and all hopes for change are probably futile so long as the same system of media ownership and control that has been in place in the Philippines since US colonial rule remains in place, and too many media practitioners remain locked in the prisons of conventional thought. The media’s developing into instruments that will help prevent human rights violations will have to wait for another time.

Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he teaches journalism. He is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. He writes a weekly column for the BusinessWorld.

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  • Raffy

    Do you think social media and other internet tools can be developed sooner to prevent human rights in general?  And human rights encompassing the right to good, transparent governance?