reviews UNHRC’s attention to PH laws, press freedom

CHEERS TO for its report that did more than echo quotes issued by the Philippine government and its officials during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the state of human rights in the country in Geneva, Switzerland last November 14. The news account correctly reviewed the recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in the said event, focusing on current national laws and press freedom.

Secretary of Justice Jesus Remulla said in his presentation that the Philippines sees the promotion and protection of human rights as “a solemn constitutional commitment and constant endeavor that the Government of the Philippines shall never waver from.” 

However, he  painted a rosy picture in his report and claimed that there are ongoing mechanisms in the country and cited the “fast” investigation of journalist Percy Lapid’s case. He dismissed the deadly practice of red-tagging and claimed that the government is pursuing a “human-rights based illegal drug control program.” But UN member states did not agree with the official’s assessment.

On November 16,’s Cristina Baclig reported the recommendations from UN member states which addressed impunity against journalists, human rights defenders, and government critics in the Philippines. She also named states that called out red-tagging, briefly reviewing how it started under former President Rodrigo Duterte.

Baclig cited Michèle Taylor, US Ambassador to the UNHRC who suggested reviewing and revising specific Philippine laws “that unduly restrict or inhibit freedom of expression and independent media.” 

Baclig recalled the said laws with much needed definition, focusing on the questionable provisions in the legal framework of the country. The report stressed the need to revoke articles 353 and 355 of the Revised Penal Code as well as provisions in the Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, primarily discussing the definition and punishment of libel and cyberlibel. Baclig also recalled the lack of clarity for charging anyone with “inciting to commit terrorism” of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

She cited media outlets and groups calling for the decriminalization of libel and denouncing the ATA. She gave specific examples of how these have been used to attack the media, including the 2020 cyber libel conviction of Nobel Peace laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and Rappler’s former writer Reynaldo Santos Jr., and the National Telecommunications Commission’s blocking of alternative news websites Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly.

The report also countered remarks recently made by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri describing the Philippine media as “very free” in comparison to the media in Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The report cited a VERA Filesfact check and Jonathan De Santos, Chairperson of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, who was interviewed in ANC’s Dateline Philippines.

Baclig’s report set itself apart from other reports which also included the UNHCR’s recommendations. She correctly presented the breadth and depth of government action or inaction about human rights with a focus on press freedom. More journalists can and should report more on these media issues as the media story reflects a paramount aspect of freedom in society. 

Baclig’s report provided the broad context of human rights violations, tracing the pattern of government actions also noted by international watchdog groups. The suppression of critics and their voices was the apparent default action of the preceding administration. Sadly, the Marcos administration may have shifted its rhetoric, but it has not accepted nor acknowledged the need to move away from the threats and attacks of Duterte and his allies.

With the end of the UPR, the press must continue to track how the recommendations  by the UN body push through, hopefully, without just quoting what the government has to say.