Without the Rule of Law

Alexander Agnello

Some of my loved ones asked how I “helped” in the Philippines. It is a question that is hard to answer without sounding like BLSAM[1]’s “intrepid global citizen”[2]: the person who came prepared to “make a difference”. The truth is that no amount of education could have prepared me for the regime change in the Philippines. Under the newly elected Duterte administration, there have been over 2000 summary executions in the last two months[3]. In a country where justice is “slow” and the prison system is one of the most overcrowded[4], trial by publicity has become the main method of usurping crime.

I am referring to a president who publishes hit-lists and turns poor citizens into contract killers. In his profanity-filled speech to a crowd in the slums of Tondo, Duterte calmly explains “[i]f you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful”[5]. In fact, the vast majority of summary executions have been performed by vigilantes, and on the streets of Manila lay corpses with placards that read “Do not follow me. I am a drug pusher/dealer” in Tagalog.

With this blatant disregard for the rule of law, stakeholders are focusing on informing the public of the atrocities this government is committing, and making important links to the infamous Marcos martial law era. But you could only do so much condemning. The Philippine National Police are part of the death squad, the country has a dire journalistic impunity record[6], and so field reporting by other groups has been admirable and necessary. A report submitted by Father Amado Picardal shows that none of the 1424 suspects killed from 1998 to 2015 by Duterte’s former government in Davao were charged in court.”[7] Another organization I met with, the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF)[8], are working in conjunction with local governments for expedited due process through a jail decongestion project. HLAF Attorney Kim Claudio proposed that we visit some of the city jails to provide legal information to detainees and update some of them on their cases. He explained to me that many of the detainees wait years, sometimes decades, for their cases to be heard. Although detainees are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, society tends to brand them as criminals because they have spent so much time in the penitentiary system. Shortly after our visit, photos of overcrowding in Quezon City Jail that showed inmates sleeping on top of other inmates made their rounds on international news and social media. I hoped that the public condemnation of abominable prison conditions would signal a turn of the tide, but now I am uncertain. After a promise to kill 100 000 criminals and “fatten the fish in Manila bay”, thousands of Filipinos continue to turn themselves in out of fear of being killed on plain suspicion[9][10].

 

Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

 

The rule of law is often seen as a starting point and a constant in theoretical work in law and political philosophy. However, in a country where the best human rights lawyers and advocates are put under heavy pressure by a state that promotes vigilantism, abuses power, and provides no chance for due process, it is difficult as an intern to know where to begin. I’ve read and watched debates on alternatives to the rule of law and international standards, but I had never worked alongside people struggling to uphold them until I came to the Philippines. I left Montreal on the day of the national election, without a clear idea of how hard it could get. Fortunately, I had the chance to work in solidarity with alternative law groups and an inspiring group of Ateneo Human Rights Interns, who all work relentlessly to hold the Duterte administration accountable, and who serve “the lost, the least, and the last”.

Human Rights Interns Group Arawatan at a retreat in Tagaytay.

Human Rights Interns group Arawatan at a retreat in Batangas. Credit: The Ateneo Human Rights Center, August 4, 2016.


[1] The Black Law Students’ Association of McGill

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/rodrigo-dutertes-drug-war-in-the-philippines-has-killed-2000-2016-8

[4] http://time.com/4438112/philippines-overcrowded-prison-manila-rodrigo-duterte/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/philippines-president-rodrigo-duterte-urges-people-to-kill-drug-addicts

[6] http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/04/asia/philippines-deadly-for-journalists/

[7] http://www.manilatimes.net/duterte-kills-only-bad-men/259609/

[8] http://home.hlaf.org.ph/

[9] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36251094

[10] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/08/asia/duterte-war-on-drugs-officials-surrender/

Jenner and Residential Schools; ‘Call Me Caitlyn’ and Call it Cultural Genocide

2015-Snyder-Dan

By Dan Snyder

“Have you seen the photos of Caitlyn Jenner?” posed one of my colleagues to the rest of us gathered around the lunch table the other day. Jenner’s transition had garnered international attention, and at the Ateneo Human Rights Center in Manila, my co-workers and I wondered if this would translate into more dialogue for LGBT rights here in the Philippines as well. The country is devoutly Catholic – over 90%. Even for myself, I remember worrying if revealing my sexual orientation would be a problem here since I’d be working at a Catholic university for the summer. (It’s not an issue.) Incredibly, one of my first projects will be to create a “SOGIE and the Law”[1] module that would be taught here at the school and replicated in workshops. I think my background has helped prepare me to work on LGBT rights in a Christian environment such as this.

While browsing Facebook the other day, the two major topics in my news feed were Caitlyn Jenner’s debut and the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report on residential schools. The following post by a friend was quite jarring to me:

There is something very evil about this whole ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ thing. The bible speaks of the unnatural and otherworldly phenomenon we will encounter towards the end, and I’m gonna go ahead and lump this in with that category of events.

I received clarification from the poster that the status was not ironic and that they were indeed serious. Though the comment really irked me, it also got me thinking about how around the world, religion is still a major influencer of people’s worldviews. Admittedly, I may forget this while studying at the “secular bastion” that is a university in Montreal, but it comes to the foreground in a place where communal prayer before lunch is second nature.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence of the jumble that is the News Feed, but the juxtaposition of the Jenner and TRC stories really stuck out to me.

In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just issued their summary report after 6 years of interviews. (I implore you to devote time to read it.) It is heartrending; thousands of children died during a residential school process that amounted to cultural genocide. I found this line from one of the commissioners particularly haunting:

Children were buried at schools that often had graveyards but no playgrounds.

In the past century, where were the Christians saying: “these residential schools are a sign of the end times, let’s work to stop the evil going on there?” The TRC report is clear that some church denominations were in fact complicit in perpetrating this violence.[2] If some people want to use a Christian worldview to guide their lives (and the lives of others), what does the Bible say about how God will judge people? In the New Testament, it says that the King will ask if you treated the oppressed and marginalized as if they were Jesus himself.[3]

Now how about Caitlyn Jenner. Trans individuals are some of the least understood and most marginalized people in our societies. Many spend most of their lives uncomfortable with the gender that society has attributed to them which may not line up with their biological sex. For most people, gender identity is not something that they ever think about because they are comfortable with the status quo paradigm. But for trans people, the status quo can be so oppressive that in the US, the rate of attempted suicide is almost 10 times the national average.[4] What puts them at such a high risk? Contributing factors include: family rejection, bullying, violence, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In order to begin to comprehend someone else’s lived experience, it requires empathy and an attempt at putting yourself in another’s shoes. No one wants to be socially ostracized or be rejected by their family. For many trans people, transitioning is dangerous because it makes one a target for increased discrimination. They aren’t doing this for fun, for attention, or because they are ill. From what I understand, they seek to more honestly be themselves and are risking a lot to do so — when the alternative is staying in a false reality that is unbearable. (I don’t want to speak instead of trans* people, please see the links below for more accurate educational resources.)

When faced with topics we don’t like, or people we don’t understand; our response must be based in compassion. Everyone deserves respect and we need to value the inherent dignity of each and every person.

“Evil” is a term I rarely employ, but I would apply it to the cultural genocide that occurred through the residential schools program and Canada’s federal assimilationist policies.

“Beautiful” is the word that I would use to describe Caitlyn’s debut. Hopefully those of us in Canada and around the world can come to admire her courage in transitioning so publicly as she journeys toward more holistic authenticity. Whether it’s the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, or learning to embrace trans people, some issues require more compassion, awareness, and understanding no matter where you are in the world.

————-

More trans* resources can be found here:

http://www.pflagcanada.ca/en/links-e.php?audience=transgender


[1] Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression

[2] Some of the denominations involved released a statement responding to the TRC report, acknowledging their role in what was done and supporting the recommendations, “…we know that our apologies are not enough.” http://www.anglican.ca/news/response-of-the-churches-to-the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/3004539/

[3] Matthew 25: 31-46

Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East

By Lia Bellefontaine

After being in Manila for more than a month, I can’t help but notice that most people have a family member living abroad. In fact, the Filipino population is spread all around the world. According to a 2011 report done by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, almost 10.5 million Filipinos live abroad, 43% of which are temporary foreign workers.[1] That means that more than 10% of the country’s population is living abroad. Some call these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the “new heroes” of the Filipino economy. They make many personal sacrifices to move abroad and often work in unfavorable conditions. Since many of them send a large part of their income back home to their families and communities, they have become the second highest source of foreign income into the Filipino economy.[2]

The issues faced by Female OFWs are vast. There is evidence of high occurrences of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Female OFWs have been subjected to human trafficking and sold as commodities between one employer to another. A large part of Female OFWs are domestic workers, who are highly integrated into the home of their employer, so they may have very little access to communication with the outside world. Their hours are often long, working all day and all night.  Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have worked to try to keep OFWs safe from the exploitation and abuse of their employers. The challenges of protecting a population under the jurisdiction of another country are burdensome. However, following recent events, the threat of exploitation comes from a different source: the Philippine authorities in foreign countries.

On June 21, 2013, three OFWs accused an officer of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of institutionalized sexual exploitation. These women had sought refuge in safe houses for distressed migrant workers set up by the POLO. Normally, the POLO and the Department of Foreign Affairs pays for repatriation to Manila. However, according to the allegations, the POLO officer required these women to pay for their repatriation with sexual favors. This scheme has been dubbed “sex for flight”. The OFWs in Riyadh are at a particularly high risk of abuse since the Saudi Arabian government has decided to crack down on undocumented OFWs, forcing thousands of OFWs to set up camp outside the Philippine Embassy, waiting for repatriation.

Although this story has attracted attention in Manila, this is not the first time that an OFW has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse committed at the hands of Philippine diplomatic officials.  There have also been disclosures of sexual exploitation of distressed workers by labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

Last weekend, Philippine Officials and Ambassadors from Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon were ordered back to Manila for a consultation. More recently, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has expanded the investigation to include diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The consultations were held in order to gather information on the allegations and identify preventive and corrective measures. In a press release, the Department of Foreign Affairs outlined the long-term goal of strengthening the One-Country Team Approach to diplomacy and inter-agency cooperation. Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) was asked to do a presentation on gender sensitivity for these diplomats. It was difficult to decide what approach should be taken in a situation where the abuse seems to be so systematic, almost institutionalized. We decided to educate them about their duties as diplomatic officials to protect women from abuse and discrimination, which seemed more appropriate considering the severity of the accusations.

The AHRC handles an incredible diversity of human rights work, including grass roots involvement, research and education, litigation and policy and legal reform. This is but one example of the many very interesting experiences that I have been exposed to. Since the center is made up mostly of lawyers, in the heart of the most prestigious law school in the Philippines, they are in a key position to promote human rights at the international and domestic level, however, it is always an upwards struggle.

 

Philippine Sex Workers: between a cross and a hard place

by Melissa Austen
A familiar Lou Reed tune cools Burgos Street’s sticky air like a Venice Beach summer breeze—the song’s ‘70s birthplace. “Shaved her legs and then he was a she. She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.’” 

The lyrics saunter onto the street from a sit-down bar. The bar is popular for its Western continental brunch buffet.  Mainly older, expat men, Filipino girls and baklas fill its seats. Bakla is a local term denoting those who are physically male, but identify and dress as female. Baklas are not a wild sight in conservative Metro Manila. An increasing number of baklas, along with local women and minors, wait along Burgos Street, the Red Light District’s hub, for clients. Their work is a 24/7 operation; a shop whose revolving door remains, for the most part, unguarded. I spent the first three weeks of my stay in the Philippines on Burgos Street.

Coincidentally, my first assignment at the AHRC was to write a petition about a criminal law targeting women sex workers. My task was to investigate how to challenge the constitutionality of Section 1 of RA 10158, which criminalizes sex work conducted by women. Specifically, I examined how our lawyers can establish that Section 1’s targeting of women sex workers is discriminatory under the Philippine Constitution. I was also instructed to recommend for the court to read out the word “women” from Section 1’s criminalization of “women prostitutes.”

There are some advantages to this proposed solution. Reading out the word “women” from Section 1 would make the criminalization of prostitution less arbitrary in its modern application. Many baklas and other transgendered persons, in addition to some men, engage in sex work in the Philippines. Males working under the red light are a blind spot in Philippine law. Section 1 does not capture them, so men are given the green light under Philippine law to engage in sex work. Women alone, because of their sex, are vulnerable to criminal charges for sex work. Reading out “women” from Section 1 would render all sex workers—regardless of their sex—indictable.

Section 1 of RA 10158’s arbitrary criminalization of women sex workers is, of course, unjust and sexist.  For this reason, the Philippine Legislature would likely agree that this law requires revision. Reading out the word “women” from Section 1 would actually support this law’s legislative purpose to criminalize sex work. It is thus possible that the court will find Section 1 to be unreasonably discriminatory toward women under the Philippine Constitution.

For me, things get sticky during the discussion (or lack thereof) on reading out Section 1 in its entirety. The result would be decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines, a paradigm shift that would not go unchallenged. A likely and important critic is the Catholic Church, a prominent actor in many areas of Philippine society. The Church is vested with heavy political clout. For many of my colleagues, the Church’s probable opposition to decriminalization provides a sufficient reason to oppose decriminalizing sex work.

My colleagues’ cultural and religious concerns are valid, and I take them seriously. I also take seriously my role as an intern: I am here to help my organization fulfill its human rights agenda to the best of my ability. As a new visitor, I do not know how to best respond to safety and legal issues facing sex workers in the Philippines. However, many groups against decriminalizing sex work are not responding to all angles of the sex work problem. I wish to see the public weigh its discomfort about decriminalizing sex work against the adverse effects of criminalization on sex workers.

A concern for the well-being and safety of sex workers has led some countries recently to decriminalize sex work. Women and children involved in sex work are vulnerable to rape, murder, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections. In the Philippines, over a third of Filipino women sex workers interviewed in 1998 reported that they have been subject to violence or harassment, most commonly from the police, but also from city officials and gangsters. There are no recent figures on violence against sex workers, illustrating the lack of resources given to researching dangers posed to this marginalized group.

Decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines will not fully protect sex workers from violence and illness.  However, sex workers could benefit from a less stigmatized status when seeking social services and accessing the law. Moreover, decriminalization would shift the police’s role from punishing sex workers to protecting them. Those for and against decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines probably agree that improving sex workers’ safety is desirable.

The causes of sex work are just as important to examine as the effects. Surveys of women working as erotic masseuses indicate that 34 percent of these women described their choice of work as necessary to support poor parents, 8 percent to support siblings, and 28 percent to support husbands or boyfriends. More than 20 percent of respondents said that the job was well paid, but only 2 percent said it was easy and enjoyable work. Poverty and familial responsibility, coupled with a lack of economic prospects, are key drivers for poor women to enter the Philippine  sex industry.

I would like to see more discussions in the Philippines on whether sex workers, induced by poverty to enter the sex industry, ought to be punished by the criminal law. Reading out “women” from Section 1 would better carry out the Philippine Legislature’s intent to prohibit sex work in its entirety. Yet the public policy merit of this law has yet to be evaluated on some important fronts. A key front is child welfare.

The relationship between poverty and sex work is particularly stark in the context of child sex workers. The Philippines ranks fourth among nine nations with the most number of children trafficked for prostitution. Pills and condoms are unknown among many child sex workers. Child sex workers commonly drink small amounts of Tide, believing that detergent bleach will prevent STI-transmission. First-line responders say that poverty, peer and family pressure lead most children to sex work. These minors are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation because many of them lack knowledge of their vulnerabilities.

The criminalization of sex work in the Philippines is especially dire at this moment. A bill to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to twelve may pass this year. I attended the House of Representatives during the bill’s second passing. If this bill is passed, then child sex workers as young as twelve can be trapped behind bars, beyond the reach of rehabilitation centers. This possibility seems odd since both sides of the decriminalization debate would probably agree that child sex workers require rehabilitation.

In many ways, these children are already locked up by their psychological trauma. Often, children in rehabilitation ”want to change but can’t get out of the system. They feel caged and trapped,” explains Dr. Norietta Calma of the Philippine General Hospital’s Child Protection Unit. Still, therapy can help prostituted children face the truth and finally ”forgive themselves.”  If we view child sex workers as requiring emotional and physical healing, then the question of whether sex work is an illness plaguing poor youth needs fleshing out.  This question is mired with legal implications.

I do not have an answer to this complicated question. All of my expressed concerns are issues I wish to see debated in the Philippines. I situate myself outside this debate.

One truth is clear, though: Philippine sex workers are subject to violence and danger in their workplaces with little or no protection. Women sex workers—and, if the AHRC’s petition is successful, all Filipino sex workers—are caught between a cross and a hard place in the Philippines’ muted debate on decriminalizing sex work.

If the new crime bill passes, then children ages twelve and up will be tacked onto the debate. Sex work in the Philippines is not just a wild, moral problem: it is a grave social crisis with far-reaching health, criminal and social consequences. These consequences require further evaluation by critics and supporters of sex work criminalization.

Mrs. Burgos’ search for her son

2011-Luke-BrownBy Luke Brown

Only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.” – Edita Burgos.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Edita Burgos speak. In the past four years, Mrs. Burgos has led a tireless campaign in an attempt to answer the question: where is her son, Jonas Burgos?

Four years ago Jonas was dragged from a Manila restaurant in broad daylight by four men and one woman. He was thrown into a van and hasn’t been seen since. The abductors were not wearing masks, and the licence plate of the van was fully visible. This is typical of enforced disappearances in the Philippines, where agents of the State brazenly abduct people accused of participating in the communist insurgency (but who generally, at most, only have connections to left-leaning groups). Jonas is a farmer-activist.

Edita Burgos speaks at the Ateneo de Manila University law school, Manila, Philippines, Friday, June 17, 2011.

Mrs. Burgos sought justice through all the official channels, filing complaints with the police and the national Commission on Human Rights (an independent investigatory agency). When this led nowhere, she sought relief through the Court of Appeals of the Philippines, and finally the Supreme Court, which ordered the Commission on Human Rights to perform a full investigation into Jonas’ disappearance, citing major lapses in the police and military investigations into the matter.

In March of this year, this Commission released its report, in which it found there was enough evidence against the military to recommend laying criminal charges against several military officers and the former police chief for arbitrary detention and obstruction of justice.

So Mrs. Burgos is soldiering on. Two weeks ago she filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, asking for charges to be laid against the officers. Sadly, she will now have to wait even longer. In cases of extrajudicial killings (a related phenomenon to enforced disappearances), it takes on average 7 months from the filing of a complaint for the DOJ to lay charges.

This is a good illustration of how slow and cumbersome the domestic legal remedies are.

But this case is also an illustration of the amazing and tireless work that many human rights advocates in the Philippines (including the Ateneo Human Rights Center, where I’m volunteering) are doing to address the phenomenon of enforced disappearances.

I met Mrs. Burgos at a presentation she delivered through the Ateneo Human Rights Center. Her story is so compelling, local playwrights even wrote a one-act play about her.

Despite the painfully slow pace of the official investigations, Mrs. Burgos is undeterred. She is fiercely committed to finding her son. As she told me, “only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.”

For more information, visit this siteThis article describes Jonas’ abduction.

Remembering the desaparecidos

By Luke Brown

My work so far in the Philippines has centred on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (EDs), picking up on the work that Chris Maughan did last year with the Ateneo Human Rights Center.

This past week (29 May – 4 June 2011) was the International Week of the Disappeared, an event initiated over 20 years ago by civil society organizations in Latin America. The purpose of the week is to remember the victims of, and shed light on the problem of, enforced disappearances worldwide. This is a major problem that persists in the Philippines.

An ED is when agents of the state, or private individuals working with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, abduct a person for political ends. The person (a “desaparecido”) is denied due process rights, and the state generally denies all knowledge of their whereabouts. Sometimes the victim will resurface weeks later, still alive. Other times they will never be seen again.

Victims of ED in the Philippines are generally accused of having links to the New People’s Army, the outlawed military wing of the Community Party of the Philippines (although membership in the Communist Party itself is legal). The government here has been engaged in a protracted counter-insurgency effort against communist rebels for the past 40 years.

However, generally the victims of ED in the Philippines have no link to any armed groups. More often they are simply associated with left-leaning civil society organizations, farmers’ unions, trade unions, or other grassroots organizations.

It’s difficult to measure the scale of the problem. The highest estimate comes from the human rights organization Karapatan, which reported 204 cases of ED from 2001-2009. There hasn’t been a single conviction for these crimes.

Despite widespread criticism from local and international organizations, including from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or abitrary executions, the Philippine government has been slow to respond. On an official institutional level, the greatest progress has arguably been made by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which has been quite outspoken on the need to take action. In recent years, the Court also crafted two procedural safeguards for victims of EDs and ELKs (although the effectiveness of these safeguards is questionable). I’m currently helping the Ateneo Human Rights Center put together a compilation of domestic and international caselaw on EDs and ELKs, to be used by the Philippine judiciary.

Last week I attended an event in Manila to commemorate the International Week of the Disappeared. This event brought together civil society groups as well as members of the human rights office of the police. It was quite heartening to see such passionate human rights advocates come together – many of whom whose friends or family members had been subjected to an ED – to vocally denounce this practice. (The image above comes from Task Force Detainees of the Philippines.)

However, this event was also a reminder of just how strong the “culture of impunity” is here. EDs are not a secret in the Philippines. They are a well-recognized problem with deep roots in the state’s counter-insurgency strategy. This problem is openly debated by the government, civil society organizations, human rights groups, the military, police and the judiciary; yet progress towards addressing it remains painfully slow.

A personal perspective

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Last week, as part of a project I’m working on, I had the chance to talk with Nonoy Espina, the Vice-Chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Mr. Espina is also a 20-year veteran of the Filipino press. We spoke about recent killings of reporters who have been critical of government officials, freedom of expression in the Philippines, and the prospects for change under the new President, who was inaugurated on Wednesday. As I mentioned in a previous post, politically-motivated killings of reporters and activists are all-too-common here in the Philippines; recently three reporters were killed in less than a week.

I’ve decided to post a transcript of part of our conversation. I think it might be interesting to readers of this blog because it provides a personal perspective on what it’s like to work in a country where rights to life and freedom of expression are often violated. Since we talked for more than half an hour, I’ve edited our conversation for brevity, with Mr. Espina’s permission.

What was your reaction to the recent killings?

During a transition phase, you expect a lot of things. I think the message here with these killings is that the perpetrators really don’t care. It doesn’t matter who is in power, they’re confident enough that they will get away with it. It really shows the level of impunity of people in this country. They really feel that they can get away with anything.

Why is there such impunity; why does it not matter who’s in power?

The answer comes on different levels. On the first level, there is the political system we have, the system of government that’s gone on for so long. There’s a lot of political patronage, especially in the provinces, where you have people from a few elite families lording their wealth over others. Many of them are warlords and many of them were, and probably still are, crimelords.

The national government has always operated on the basis of political expediency. It needs these people to deliver votes, and so it allies itself with these guys and that’s what allows the [politicians in] government to stay so strong, it’s what allows them to get away with a lot. The perfect example is Maguindanao – where you had one family lording their power over the province.

That kind of system is everywhere; it subsists in a lot of provinces, but to varying degrees of course. It goes on at a lot of levels. Sometimes, it’s so bad that it runs all the way down to the village level […].

The problem is that the government has never really shown it cared. Just take the nine years of [Gloria] Arroyo’s Presidency. We’ve got something like 103 journalists dead and something like nine convictions, all of gunmen, none of masterminds. And I think that ties in to the political side of things. I’d bet anything that if you dig into these cases, a lot of these names are going to show up – mayor so-and-so, governor so-and-so, and so on. The latest killing, they’re saying that it was the vice-mayor who was the mastermind.

So tell me how all this affects your day-to-day work as a journalist.

In the provinces, where I worked for more than two decades, politics can get really personal. Some politicians really believe that public office is a privilege, it’s like they act like feudal lords. So you know that if you cross them, it can have dire results.

To what degree do journalists find themselves compromising on their work as a result of this?

To be honest, a lot. Sometimes journalists are so poorly paid that there are cases where local radio stations say to politicians, ‘Mr. Congressman, can you take care of our local reporter working in your district?’ So the congressman actually pays the journalist’s wages. You can’t expect him to report anything bad about the congressman.

So it sounds like there’s a financial factor weighing in here alongside the fear of getting killed if you cross these guys.

Yes, that’s true. In fact in some places, it’s either you take the envelope or you take the bullet. That’s no choice at all.

What about you and your reporting? Do you still try to challenge corrupt officials?

I’ve always done that.

Have you written stories where, after publication, you find yourself looking over your shoulder?

Oh, yes I have. I’ve almost lost my life, in fact.

How did you almost lose your life?

Well, back in 1989, I was almost picked up by military intelligence. Not to blow my own horn, but in Negros, I was like the resident insurgency specialist. I reported on the insurgency a lot and the social conditions that caused the insurgency. And if you do that, you get on the order of battle list, you’re automatically labeled an ‘enemy of the state’ and stuff like that. So one time they tried to pick me up.

I was lucky. My reaction to extreme danger is not freeze or run; everything sort of slows down. I remember the first thought that I had was that they were not going to take me alive. They were stupid enough to try to pick me up on my own street, so I just talked loud enough to attract attention. I just kept my voice up loudly so that people came into the street. They asked if I was okay and I said ‘yeah, I’m just talking to my friends here,’ but I got them to stick around, saying stuff like ‘just stay here; I want to talk to you later.’ That pretty much limited the soldiers’ options, so they left. And that’s when I just slumped to the ground, trembling.

And yet sometimes, like this week, even when there’s witnesses around…

Yeah, they’ll still do it. When that happens, you’re dealing with hired killers, and planned hits. In my case, it was probably more of a political thing where they probably wanted to take me and torture me into some kind of confession. I wasn’t about to let them do that. I was scared, though. There are a few other times where I’ve practically French-kissed the muzzle of a gun. Probably the worst thing that happened to me was getting a text message that said, ‘tomorrow, you’ll be writing about your family.’

So how do you live life with these threats, knowing that you can be killed just for doing your job?

You just do what you have to do, I guess. I’m not trying to sound brave or anything, but I guess I’ve always believed that someone has to tell these stories. It’s sad; a lot of the reporting on the troubles people are experiencing does not delve into why they are taking place. I don’t think government likes people thinking about that.

I imagine that people are still thinking a lot about the troubles in Maguindanao and the November massacre, which you alluded to earlier. How did that affect you? To what extent did it make you reconsider your chosen line of work?

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but I’m still traumatized by Maguindanao. For about a month afterwards, I kept being bothered by thoughts of it. There was nothing I could do to stop them, they just kept recurring and recurring, but I’ve pretty much gotten over that. […] I remember when I went there [during the aftermath], everyday bodies were still turning up and I kept wondering – is this not ever going to stop? It was a bad scene.

What can be done on the legal side of things to help stop killings like this from happening? Are there legislative initiatives that need to be taken or is it just a matter of enforcing the laws that are on the books?

You know, there really are too many laws in this country. There have in fact been calls for a law to amend the penal code to make the murder of journalists a more serious crime than ordinary murder. But we don’t want that, actually.

Why not?

Because we don’t want to be treated like anyone special. We don’t actually consider ourselves better than any other poor guys being bumped off. A life is a life is a life. All we’re asking is that people enforce the law, and do their duty to protect people’s lives. You know, sometimes we get cynical about lip-service pronouncements, but there is something to be said for moral suasion. If our leaders were serious enough about this, probably all they would need to do is just give a clear, unequivocal order to get the killers and stop the killings. And we’ve been asking [President] Gloria [Arroyo] to do that for nine years. She’s never done it.

So what’s your outlook? Are you hopeful for the future (now that a new president, Noynoy Aquino, is coming into power)?

Well, I don’t know […]. It’s important that we not give him a honeymoon of justice; lives are at stake here. More than a hundred lives have been lost, and hundreds more are in danger. We look at this as a matter of state accountability. It isn’t just Gloria that needs to be made accountable. Noynoy should also be made accountable, for making sure that lives are protected and that justice is being served.

Following Up: More Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

In my last post, I mentioned the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists and 57 people in total were killed for registering their dissent against the Ampatuan family. The Ampatuans had maintained a stranglehold on political power in Maguindanao through corruption and intimidation.

The prosecution’s strongest witness in the ensuing trial has recently been gunned down. It’s rumoured that the Ampatuans are involved. See the news links below:

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100624-277293/Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killedprosecutor
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100628-278050/Four-suspects-tagged-in-Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killing
http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/06/28/10/ampatuans-linked-gunman%E2%80%99s-death-says-roque

The Filipino Culture of Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Today I was finally going to publish my introductory post, the one that says “here I am in the Philippines and this is what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Working at the Ateneo Human Rights Center has been an enriching experience, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m finally adapting to the culture…”

All of that is true. But today I want to write about something else: three local journalists killed in less than a week, just for speaking their minds.

Gunned down in public. Even though such killings have happened many times before, I can’t believe the news.

I didn’t know what to say after the first two journalists were killed, hence the absence of a blog post on the subject. I was shocked. I still am, especially now that a third journalist has died, but I feel an obligation to write something on the subject to draw people’s attention to the news since it hasn’t been making headlines in Canada.

The first killing happened five days ago. Desidario Camangyan, a radio reporter who had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to illegal logging practices, was shot while hosting an amateur singing contest. His wife and son were in the audience.

Less than 24 hours later, Joselito Agustin, another radio broadcaster, was shot and killed while on his way home from work. Like Camangyan, Agustin had spoken out against government corruption.

This weekend, Nestor Bedolido, a newspaper reporter, was shot and killed as he was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. Belodido was supposedly behind a number of scathing exposes written about an allegedly corrupt politician in Davao del Sur.

So far no one has been arrested and all but one of the suspects are unidentified.

The killings bring the number of journalists killed in the Philippines to 107 – and that’s just in the last nine years, since President Gloria Arroyo took power in 2001. Since the inception of democracy in 1986, 140 have been killed in total.

Before posting some news links and a few thoughts, I should mention that all of this comes only seven months after the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists lost their lives for taking political action, for merely deigning to defy a local “politician-warlord” who had maintained a stranglehold on power through corruption and intimidation.

News links are below (links are posted first; my thoughts are underneath), with a Wikipedia entry on the Massacre that links to stories published in late 2009. About a week and a half ago, an activist came into our office with pictures of the victims of Maguindanao – they were by far the most shocking images I have ever seen.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20100621-276729/Another-journalist-killed
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/world/asia/21iht-phils.html
http://cpj.org/2010/06/another-radio-journalist-killed-in-the-philippines.php
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/topstories/topstories/view/20100615-275715/Radioman-shot-dead-in-Davao-Oriental
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maguindanao_massacre

So that’s the news. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, given the circumstances, there’s little doubt that these killings are politically motivated. The two most recent ones meet the profile of the typical Filipino political killing: a gunman walks up to the victim in the middle of the street, fires, and rides away on the back of a motorcycle that’s waiting nearby. Too many journalists, lawyers and activists have been killed this way, usually after expressing criticism of the government or left-wing political views. Too few of the men and women behind these killings have been brought to justice – there have only been a handful of convictions.

Second, it’s disheartening that even after a UN Special Rapporteur report on extrajudicial (that is, illegal and political) killings in the Philippines, a local commission-of-inquiry report on the matter, the creation of a national Commission on Human Rights, and the creation of a national police task force, extrajudicial killings continue to take place – and the perpetrators seem as bold as ever. Some of the gunmen don’t even hide their faces – a telling sign that they know they can count on a culture of impunity.

Like the Maguindanao Massacre, I guess this series of killings reflects what is often the reality of human rights legal work – you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight. That said, there are signs that extrajudicial killings generally are tapering off – there are fewer per year now than there were in 2006, when there were 209 in total. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change.

This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.

I want to end on a positive note. The Ateneo Human Rights Center is doing a lot to help prevent extrajudicial killings and give prosecutors and investigators the tools they need to obtain convictions. In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in two really interesting projects to this end. First, I’m involved in the planning of a national public awareness campaign; staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country. Second, I’m helping with the creation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, which are locally-based collectives of legal and human rights experts who come together to provide support to victims when an extralegal killing takes place.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to help out with these initiatives. Hopefully, along with this week’s bad news, they’ll get people thinking about how to dismantle the infrastructure of impunity that allows violations of rights to life and free expression to keep happening.

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