Reports on PH-EU trade talks ignore concerns about human rights

Four reports highlight human rights situation in the Philippines

JEERS TO several print media for failing to include the necessary perspective of human rights in reporting the resumption of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations between the Philippines and the European Union (EU). Most of the coverage did not include background to inform the public that the EU suspended the discussion of its FTA because of the state of human rights (HR) during the Duterte administration. Like other governments, the EU’s assessment of partnerships and bilateral relations uphold values and reflect the ranking of human rights in the EU community. 

What’s the Story?

News coverage noted that European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen’s official visit from July 30 to August 1 was the first made by the highest official of the EC since the delegation opened in the Philippines in 1991. Her purpose was to expand bilateral partnership in a variety of areas, including trade, economic growth, maritime, climate, and digital connectivity. Von der Leyen and Marcos first met in December 2022 at the ASEAN-EU summit in Brussels.

On July 31, media cited the joint statement between the EU and the Philippines announcing the resumption of discussions for a finalized FTA.

The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, The Manila Times, Manila Standard, and Daily Tribune published stories in their August 1 editions that merely recorded the exchange of statements between the Marcos administration and the EU. These focused on maritime security, trade and investments in strengthening the ties between the two regions. None of the EU statements referred to the HR situation in the country. But in an exclusive interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source, Von der Leyen said the human rights situation was “much improved” under the Marcos administration.

The newspapers above failed to interview rights advocates, critics and civil society to expand the discussion on the state of human rights in the country. The reports also made no reference to the International Criminal Court’s ruling authorizing the resumption of the investigation into “drug war” killings under Duterte and those killed by the Davao Death Squad when he was mayor of Davao City.

CMFR found the same crucial lapse in the reporting on the visit by ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night and TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas. News Night included a clip of Von der Leyen’s The Source interview but did not discuss the issue further. 

GMA-7’s 24 Oras did not report Von der Leyen’s visit. Its late-night newscast Saksi carried the news but, as with the other programs, lacked discussion of human rights.

Exceptions

Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Krixia Subingsubing cited civil society organizations such as Karapatan, which criticized EU’s incoherent policy on observing trade perks and sanctions in relation to the human rights situation in the Philippines. 

Subingsubing also noted the call of Civicus World Alliance for Citizen Participation, an international alliance of civil society organizations, for President Marcos to address intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders, which can include revoking the designation of  six human rights defenders as terrorists.

Philstar.com, The Philippine Star’s digital counterpart, cited Human Rights Watch (HRW), which pointed out that despite assurances of improvement by the Marcos administration, the EU still needs to uphold its commitments to the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) scheme. The EU’s GSP+ “gives special incentives and zero tariffs” for over 6,000 Philippine products in the EU market. But it requires the exporting country to uphold a set of “human rights standards.”

Philstar.com added more context by referring to the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center which counted at least 336 drug-related killings during President Marcos’ term.

Katrina Domingo, in her report for ANC’s Rundown, recalled that Eamon Gilmore, EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights and other officials of the EU Parliament, during their March visit to the Philippines, had called attention to persisting human rights violations. Rico Hizon, anchor of CNN Philippines’ The Final Word, noted the apparent inconsistency of statements coming from the EU officials. Philippe Dam, HRW’s director for EU, told Hizon in an interview that Von der Leyen was in a position to speak about human rights, but did not even specify what aspect of human rights she found improved. 

Why Is this Important?

A free media community must include the human rights perspective in its reporting and uphold safeguards against the state’s abuse of its citizens. There may be signs that Marcos does not have Duterte’s despotic tendencies but it is evident that some government agencies are still aligned with the rejection of human rights endorsed by Duterte. Journalists should report on how much more needs to be done to dismantle the mechanisms of law enforcement that diminish human rights. 

Media should note how the international community can help uphold the importance of human rights by including its discussion in all aspects of foreign relations. The country has signed on to international covenants stating these fundamental values and principles. Media need to make sure that news coverage reflects this bias for the greater public good.