PCIJ guest blogger Tonyo Cruz shares this article on human rights reporting after attending a training seminar conducted by the PCIJ and Newsbreak last week.

Cruz had worked as a reporter for the Manila bureau of Asahi Shimbun and Malaya. He also keeps a blog on politics and technology, which won Best News and Media Blog in the 2008 Philippine Blog Awards.

A trail of bodies, unsolved killings

LAST week, this blogger/journalist joined more than a dozen full-time journalists and some student journalists in a training seminar on reporting human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in Tagaytay City. The theme is all too familiar already for most of us — they have made the headlines since 2006 and the scourge of work-related murders have snuffed the life out of many journalists.

But familiarity is vastly different from understanding the concepts and issues, and from taking steps to preventing their recurrence. Thus, the training organized by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and Newsbreak became a welcome reprieve from the daily grind and an opportunity for learning and relearning for the more than a dozen of us who attended.

Human rights are mostly taken for granted nowadays with some taking the line that these are a fetter to prosperity and even to fighting crimes such as murders. But the training reminded us that human rights, especially the right to life and to free expression, emanate from every person’s innate dignity as human beings. These are not gifts from the powerful and the elite. These are ours, whether laws say so or not.

Another lesson about human rights that we learned and relearned is their place in the order of things in newsrooms and in the very lives of journalists. Human rights violations and extrajudicial killings (EJK) remain hot topics only as long as they possess elements of news — the incident(s) must be new, must affect the population, must involve prominent people, etc. Yes, they remain to be the stuff of news but it is quite unfortunate that Philippine media seems to be losing focus on even the extrajudicial killings of its own members. As of today, 100 journalists have been killed, mostly in the line of duty, and some journalists remain under threat for doing their job of investigating and writing the news including the extrajudicial killings of others.

In her presentation, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas gave a stark picture of press freedom across our part of Asia, comparing the conditions of journalists in various countries and the common challenges we face in the exercise of free expression and press freedom. Yes, there is relatively greater freedom for the media and the blogosphere in the Philippines compared with our neighbors, but journalists here get killed for what they report or comment on, sometimes right inside the radio booth or in front of their own families.

PCIJ Research Director Rowena Paraan, erstwhile secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, took the training down memory lane as we reacquainted ourselves with a review of the history, theory, and existing legal documents on human rights that provided a solid footing for defining extrajudicial killings. At least for those of us who attended, it would no longer be difficult to determine, based on the information we obtain, whether a particular incident we are covering is an “ordinary” murder or an EJK.

The main protagonists in the efforts to stamp out extrajudicial killings also spoke to us in a panel discussion:

  • Chairperson Leila de Lima injects dynamism, competence and credibility into the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), that constitutional body that we have all almost forgotten, no thanks to the agency’s choice of silence and irrelevance in human rights issues in the past. With De Lima at the helm, the CHR has crossed swords with officials, shared our disgust over purported rub-outs and now shares a vision of the CHR’s own independent forensics laboratory to help ferret out the truth behind human rights violations of the most violent kind.
  • Sr. Supt. Frank Bucayu, chief of the Human Rights Affairs Office of the Philippine National Police (PNP), failed to attend, but instead sent a five-member team to present the PNP’s best face: the deputy chief of his office, a representative of the Public Information Office, a policeman-lawyer from Task Force Usig, and two senior policewomen working in PNP’s crime laboratory. They took turns showing off “human rights” as part of the PNP’s overall plans, shared moves to amend existing procedures to improve respect for human rights, and displayed competence in their presentations on forensics. Confronted with specific questions on cases of extrajudicial killings, on number of cases solved or why a certain suspect remains at large, they were, let’s just say, mum.
  • Karapatan Secretary-General Marie Hilao Enriquez started her presentation by quickly reintroducing us to the nature and breadth of Karapatan’s network and just how it operates. Carrying the victims’ and survivors’ memories on her shoulders, she admonished the police and other authorities not just for snail-paced work, but for their complicity in the politically motivated murders of activists as the reason why the crimes continue to occur and why they go unpunished.

We terribly missed hearing from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). As pointed by our most senior colleague, the AFP has much to explain and share about the issue of EJKs.

In their joint presentation, Newsbreak staffwriters Aries Rufo and Carmela Fonbuena reminded participants of real-life coverage and the challenges journalists face when covering EJK incidents. Both of them received awards for their efforts and all of us attendees wish them well and thank them for the pointers: To study the issue generally and specifically, to look for links between incidents, to get as many sources as possible, to dig deeper than what sources tell you, to follow editors’ instructions, to keep safe when doing coverage out of town and with limited time, to always be alert and conscious of local conditions.

ABC-TV5 News Manager Ed Lingao pushed the discussion a bit further with an audio-visual presentation on the protagonists in the extrajudicial killings issue and their conflicting views. It was a thought-provoking way of taking on the topic “Ethical Dilemmas, Problematic Situations and Judgment Calls” vis-a-vis EJKs and compelled us to think and rethink how and why we cover EJKs and human rights violations in general.

Human rights lawyer Theodore Te briefed us through the most important international and domestic human rights treaties and statutes, establishing a basis for defining, exposing and condemning extrajudicial or extralegal killings as anathema to human rights and human dignity, and why everyone must be outraged by rubouts and “salvagings” of crime suspects and others who are killed in a similar way (sans due process and outside the legal processes) like journalists and activists.

Te also shared how journalists may have violated the rights of many crime suspects in seemingly harmless or fair on-camera interviews inside detention cells of police precincts. Yes, we may be asking for their side of the story but the interview with suspects and their self-incriminating statements made without the presence of counsel are all admissible as evidence in court proceedings!

Te also talked about the proposed Minnesota Protocol which most of us think would be a great way for the Philippines to confront the scourge of extrajudicial killings. Right now, extrajudicial killings are not a crime under our law. EJK cases are prosecuted as murder cases because Congress has yet to enact a law making it a crime.

The training session also included other practical matters such as those on safety — what to do when being followed, during an attack or ambush, when a bomb or grenade explodes, preparations for sensitive press coverage, and the like. It is difficult to present here everything we learned about safety but it should be enough to state that we cannot underestimate threats to our lives and safety so we must be vigilant, alert and be in constant touch with our media organization and our colleagues.

We also tried to contribute to drafting a Reporter’s Protocol on covering EJKs and human rights violations. The realization is that many improvements are needed in Philippine media’s human rights coverage (and the issues need to be addressed as well in the blogosphere). The problems are many, I tell you, especially for those working in the provinces. Structures and predominant ideas in the Philippine media (and the blogosphere) regarding what and how to cover are also stumbling blocks.

But the hope is that journalists and citizen media would be able to mitigate these concerns through various means. Means like learning and relearning issues in training workshops such as this, and renewing a commitment to make journalism (and citizen media) comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

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3 Responses to A trail of bodies, unsolved killings



March 20th, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Te also talked about the proposed Minnesota Protocol which most of us think would be a great way for the Philippines to confront the scourge of extrajudicial killings.



tonyocruz.com » Guest post at the Daily PCIJ blog: ‘A trail of bodies, unsolved killings’

March 20th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

[…] Read the entire post here. […]


Tinay Palabay

March 21st, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Rebelyn Pitao’s case is one of the recent cases on what Marie Enriquez said on the complicity of the police and other state actors in the politically motivated murders. It is ironic though that while the Arroyo government says it has been improving its human rights record in the past months, the murder of Pitao, activists and journalists have occurred in the past few weeks.

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