Media on UN Rapporteur’s Visit: Misplaced Focus, Missed Details
BY THE time of her visit, enough journalists in the Philippines had come to know about Agnes Callamard and her appointment as United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Because of the widespread criticism of the number of killings in the course of President Duterte’s war on drugs, Callamard’s visit was no surprise.
The Philippine government had invited her to come to the country to investigate the issue. But the probe, originally set in the first quarter of 2017, did not push through after the government imposed conditions for the official visit which Callamard quickly rejected. (See “UN Special Rapporteur Visit: Reporting the Non-negotiable Procedures”)
Last May 4, Callamard was among the guests at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The following day, she delivered a keynote address at the start of the two-day policy forum—Drug Issues, Different Perspectives—hosted and organized by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Her presence in the country provoked Malacañang officials to question her motives and the propriety of her visit. Media’s coverage was mostly limited to the exchange of statements between Callamard and Malacañang officials, and other views opposing her visit. There were hardly any reports about the policy forum and the presentations made by participating experts.
CMFR monitored reports of newspapers Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Daily Tribune, Malaya, Manila Standard and The Manila Times; primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2), as well as selected news sites from May 5 to 9, 2017.
Focus on tirade
As a backgrounder, media reports referred to the earlier exchange between the UN Rapporteur and Malacañang and the president’s insistence that he wanted to question Callamard too if she was going to do an investigation.
Reports followed government’s critical lead on the visit: Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella claimed Callamard did not inform the government of the visit; that she violated official protocols; that her visit “sent a clear signal that she is not interested in getting an objective perspective” on issues, questioning her capacity to conduct a fair and comprehensive investigation.
Reports did cite Callamard saying that waging war on drugs does not effectively address the problem, a statement that did not mention the Philippines.
Callamard disputed Abella’s claims and observations in an official statement, citing communication with the government from April 28 to May 4 regarding her academic trip. Abella later confirmed that government received that message but maintained the Palace’s earlier position. (“UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, desidido raw bumalik ng bansa sa kabila ng mga batikos,” 24 Oras)
Coverage also included comments made either in support for or against Callamard’s visit.
In short, media fell in line with the government’s efforts to put Callamard’s visit in a bad light and thus helped to forward a hostile outlook about her and her participation in the forum.
Not the first time
While reports were clear that Callamard’s visit was not official and that she was in the country for academic purposes, none of the reports referred to previous unofficial visits made by other UN rapporteurs.
In November 2010, then UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank William La Rue visited the Philippines to attend a lecture-dialogue in the UP College of Law and was a keynote address at the Journalism Asia Forum 2010: Impunity and Press Freedom organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and CMFR in Manila. He also participated in the activities which marked the first anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre wherein 58 people were killed, 32 of which were media workers. Five years later, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye for Freedom of Opinion and Expression visited Manila to participate in RightsCon 2015.
Two other rapporteurs made official visits in the past. In 2007, then UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston came to investigate the cases of EJKs during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term. And during President Benigno Aquino III’s tenure, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Chaloka Beyani came to look into the situation of internally displaced persons caused by natural disasters and conflict in the different regions of the Philippines.
So apart from official country visits to conduct an investigation which requires an official invitation from government, UN rapporteurs can be invited by academic and professional groups for exchange and dialogue, to participate in seminars and conferences. There is no need for government to be notified about these academic visits.
Given that other rapporteurs had also made unofficial visits to the country in the past, one must wonder why Callamard was given such hostile treatment by the government. The media should have known better than to blindly follow the government’s lead on this issue. The country is a member nation of the United Nations and a signatory to conventions that protect rights. Rapporteurs are part of a system established to keep an eye on the observance of these rights.
Most media accounts in the newspapers and television news programs gave more attention to Callamard and the official buzz surrounding her visit. But there were few stories on the discussions that took place during the FLAG drug policy forum, which the organizers had hoped would be a “meaningful dialogue” and expand the discourse on the country’s drug issues. Some of these were found in news websites of media organizations.
These include ABS-CBN News’ reports which talked about the country’s drug situation (“Data shows PH drug problem ‘slightly manufactured’: analyst”); what could be learned from Thailand’s drug war experience (“War on drugs may ‘legitimize’ police abuses in PH – expert” and “Duterte’s drug war has ‘unrealistic’ goals – expert”); and the prospects of the Dangerous Drug Board’s (DDB) new anti-drug strategy (“Callamard: PH narco bureau’s new anti-drug strategy ‘gave me hope’”). Rappler, for its part, looked into the community-based rehabilitation programs headed by religious groups (“Rehab advocates can work with Dutertegov’t in ‘healing’ addicts – priest”).