‘No proper system’ in the Philippines for protection of journalists — UN expert

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
�No proper system� in the Philippines for protection of journalists � UN expert
Irene Khan (L), United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, gestures during a press conference in Manila on Feb. 2, 2024.
Ted Aljibe / AFP

MANILA, Philippines — Piecemeal measures by the government’s media security task force to ensure journalists’ safety are not enough, especially when some attacks on the media have come from police and other authorities themselves, United Nations special rapporteur Irene Khan said on Friday.

Khan — who capped off her 10-day mission with a press conference on Friday — said that the Philippines lacks a systemic approach to protecting media practitioners, many of whom are on the receiving end of state-sponsored vilification.

From January 23 to February 1, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion met with government officials and members of civil society, including journalist groups, to assess the state of free speech and human rights in the Philippines.

Khan emphasized the gravity of journalist killings in the Philippines, calling them "the most egregious form of censorship" in the country.

The UN expert also pointed out that while violence against journalists and rights defenders were rampant during the Duterte administration, the four journalists killed under Marcos "shows that the trend remains disturbing."

“In the context of protection or prevention of attacks (on journalists), I feel there is no proper system for that,” Khan added.

The UN expert cited some “ad-hoc” initiatives by the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoms), such as its use of “media security vanguards” in 2022 for police to protect journalists against harassment and intimidation in the lead-up to the elections.

These, however, are “not enough,” the UN rapporteur said.

Khan said that based on her observation in countries known to be dangerous for journalists, the Philippine government must have a “systematic” and “institutionalized” mechanism that will be used by media practitioners to fend off threats.

But, the UN expert pointed out, Filipino journalists have become wary of approaching local police for protection. 

“You have to feel confident about approaching that protection mechanism. (But) from what I have heard, many journalists are actually afraid of the police. They're afraid of the security system,” Khan said.

“So asking you to go to the same police that may have tagged you or charged brought false charges against you is not going to work,” Khan added.

On January 27, Khan visited community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio and two other human rights workers — a meeting that the UN expert said “was almost inspiring” as they remained in “high spirits” despite being detained for nearly four years.

Cumpio, human rights worker Alexander Philip Abinguna and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines staff Marielle Domequil are part of the “Tacloban 5” group that was arrested on Feb. 7, 2020 after a string of raids meant to target members of communist groups.

Khan said that her delegation was the only international delegation that was allowed by the government to meet with the group since they were detained.

The UN rapporteur added that she hopes that the government will act on their case after her visit instead of leaving them to “languish” in prison.

“To leave them to languish, leave young people like that, inspiring, articulate, resilient young people in prison, sends a terrible message for the youth of this country,” Khan said.

Paul Gutierrez, executive director of PTFoMS, said on Thursday that Khan has informed officials of her observations that he believes will be "eventually addressed" by the government.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has documented at least 109 incidents of attacks and threats against media workers since the start of the Marcos presidency in July 2022. 

This figure is 47% higher compared to the same period under Marcos' predecessor, former President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Nearly a quarter of the incidents documented by NUJP in 2023 were related to the red-tagging of media workers.

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