Beyond the “drama”: Reports spotlight human rights violations in Baby River’s burial

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THE “CRUEL and inhumane” treatment of a jailed activist during the burial of her three-month-old daughter made international headlines last week.

Baby River was the daughter of Reina Mae Nasino, a 23-year old activist arrested last year in one of Manila’s slums in the course of the administration’s crackdown on human rights workers. Reports recalled the circumstances of her arrest. In November 2019, she was charged with unlawful possession of firearms and explosives, a non-bailable offense. Nasino’s camp claimed the evidence was planted because of her affiliation with Kadamay, an urban poor group which clashed with authorities in 2017 after their members occupied a still vacant public housing project. In 2018, Duterte warned the group that its members would be shot for resisting arrest.

Last August, River was separated from her jailed mother. The baby, left in the care of her grandmother, contracted and died of pneumonia on October 9. From its initial coverage, the media presented the cruelty of the government in requiring Nasino to attend her infant’s funeral in a hazmat suit and handcuffs.

Not one to miss the drama in a story, media described in detail what happened last October 16 during the funeral that was “hijacked and commandeered” by Manila police. Roughly 50 cops were deployed for the burial. Videos circulated online showing Marites Asis, Nasino’s mother, begging on her knees for the police to allow them to start the funeral procession only to be left behind as the police escorts seized and sped up the lead car carrying the remains. Media also noted the refusal of police to remove Nasino’s cuffs so that she could at least hold her baby moments before the burial.

The Nasinos’ plight and the handling of River’s burial sparked public outrage against the PNP and the BJMP, as reports documented the indignation and criticism expressed by human rights groups.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from October 16 to October 21, 2020.

Violation of human rights

Most reports merely dramatized the police overkill in applying restrictions on Nasino. CMFR notes those which checked the particular human rights laws violated by the BJMP and the PNP in their handling of the burial. cited the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (IHCRP) whose chapter in British Columbia in Canada detailed the international standards for the treatment of prisoners and children which the Philippine government violated in this recent case. Specifically, the global rights group referred to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that “The baby’s best interest shall be the primary consideration in all actions concerning children…” ICHRP also pointed out that women prisoners should be allowed to breastfeed their children, as mandated by the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women – recognizing the “ long lasting immunity” and the protection against infections breastfeeding provides  infants. referred to the court ruling that prevented Nasino from breastfeeding her own child. Nasino was already pregnant when she was detained in 2019 and gave birth this year in July. Nasino and her lawyers implored Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 20 Judge Marivic Balisi-Umali to allow her extended stay at the hospital or prison nursery. But Umali junked their motion and said River should “be turned over to her father or a relative, who could take care of her better.”

Rappler also highlighted the child’s right to be breastfed, quoting lawyer Domingo “Egon” Cayosa, Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president, who stressed the need for the justice system to safeguard the rights of an innocent child, including the right to a better chance at survival through breastfeeding.


Media also correctly recalled the double standard applied by the PNP/BJMP in their treatment of different detainees, accommodating more readily the requests for furloughs if the person serving a sentence is a prominent person.

In the same Rappler report above, IBP’s Cayosa also condemned the “greater privileges” of high-profile detainees who have been granted longer furlough for less compelling reasons like attending family celebrations.

An Interaksyon report cited a tweet from Lawyer Edre Olalia, secretary-general of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), that likewise compared the furlough granted to Nasino to government officials involved in serious crimes. These included Governor Zaldy Ampatuan’s furlough to attend the wedding of his daughter, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s to attend his son’s high school graduation and ex-Pres. Joseph Erap Estrada’s for his mom’s 99th, 100th and 101st birthdays, among others.

In the same report, Interaksyon also cited a tweet on October 14, days before the burial, of author Alfonso Manalastas who described how the terms “humanitarian” and “compassion” were only invoked by courts in cases involving high-ranking government officials. He recalled the case of Imelda Marcos who was found guilty of seven counts of graft, and sentenced to imprisonment of a minimum of six years and one month to a maximum of 11 years “in each case.” She was not arrested because of her age and health.

From the angle of human interest, media had every reason to fully report the tragic experience of Nasino. But the media were right to present the case as an example of the pattern of disdain and disregard for human rights of the poor, especially those who are in conflict with the law, by the Duterte regime.  Media should not shirk the obligation to call public attention to such shameful treatment of those already disadvantaged by their poverty. Let newsrooms set the editorial policy of calling attention to human rights violations because the public must become more aware of their rights in order to claim these and defend themselves against their abuse.