“The whole concept of freedom of expression is to be able to say what you want even if it offends the other side. The government should encourage a greater culture of tolerance.” — Special Rapporteur on Free Expression and Opinion Irene Khan
By ALYSSA MAE CLARIN
MANILA — At the end of her ten-day official visit to the Philippines, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan reminded the Philippine government that the essence of freedom of speech and expression is dissent and criticism.
In a press briefing, Feb. 2, Khan presented her initial findings on the state of free expression in the Philippines after meeting with various state offices, civil society organizations (CSOs) and the media.
Khan said that although her official visit in the country signifies the current administration’s willingness to engage with the UN, she said that it is not sufficient to say that the state of human rights and free expression is better.
“Tackling the great and deep-seated human rights problems in the Philippines, many of which are related to my mandate, will require more fundamental and sustained reforms and also a clear commitment to accountability,” said Khan in her statement.
She added that as duty-bearers, the state should always show tolerance to remarks from the media and peoples’ organizations regardless of whether it will like it or not.
“I should also stress in my report that freedom of information is about dissent. It is about dialogues, it is about criticism,” Khan said. “The whole concept of freedom of expression is to be able to say what you want even if it offends the other side. The government should encourage a greater culture of tolerance.”
Abolish NTF-ELCAC, adopt policy against red-tagging
In her recommendations, Khan suggested that the government should pass an executive order or any measure that would discourage the practice of red-tagging and discipline those who would violate the policy.
This was after her conversations with different organizations and local media pointed out one main concern: the use of red-tagging and terror-tagging as a tool to stifle dissent.
Khan reiterated how in her meetings, the victims of this act have consistently pointed their fingers at stage actors, particularly the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), as either the culprit or the instigator.
“I have asked the government personally, whether they have a policy on red-tagging and I was reassured that it does not encourage or endorse it. But there is clear evidence that red-tagging or terror-tagging are being practiced by security forces as part of their counter terrorism strategy,” said Khan.
Similarly to her colleague, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Climate Change Ian Fry, she also called for the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC.
“It is outdated, and it does not take into account the ongoing prospects of peace negotiations,” she said, adding that the abolishment will also also address some of the most critical drivers of red-tagging and will allow the present administration to a more inclusive peace-making platform as a genuine ‘whole of the nation approach.’
Khan also said that it was clear that these vilifications in the form of red-tagging are often associated with individuals that are not actually associated with such organizations. Instead, the practice targets legitimate activists as a way to undermine the public’s trust in civil society and even the media.
In her visit to Tacloban, Khan also met with detained activists Mariel Domequil, Alexander Philip Abinguna and detained community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio who were all arrested under trumped-up charges in relation to terrorism.
She insistently urged the authorities to either review the cases and dismiss the charges, or at the very least, expedite the trials with full due process.
“As justice delayed is justice denied,” said Khan. “Yes, a state has the obligation to protect its people from terrorism but must do so within the confines of the rule of law and in line with international rights obligations,” she added.
On media freedom and safety of journalists
Khan also shared her findings on media freedom as well as the safety of journalists and human rights defenders. As her main constituents, Khan raised alarm over the killing of journalists.
She added that although violence against journalists was particularly high during the previous administration, the numbers of attacks against free press in the past eighteen months of the new administration remain disturbing.
She cited that UNESCO had recorded at least 81 cases of killings of journalists that remain unresolved, which only indicated that there’s still much to be done to address the dire state of impunity in the country.
“The killing of journalists is the most egregious form of censorship,” remarked Khan, mentioning how the Philippines remain a dangerous country for journalists.
Khan also highlighted how the Administrative Order No. 35 or the Inter-Agency Committee On Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Persons (IAC) should be strengthened further because impunity on killings still remains as a major problem.
AlthoughKhan said that the current administration appears to be more amiable towards the press now compared to the previous one, she said that the damage caused by the previous administration had reduced pluralism and public trust in independent journalism because of the viral disinformation campaigns, which targeted and discredited critical media.
She said that the non-renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN, one of the country’s largest broadcasting television and radio companies, was a major blow to media freedom.
She proceeded to mention how the blocking of alternative news media websites because of allegations of their connection to terrorism is a direct form of censorship which requires ‘a high degree of scrutiny.’
Khan added that “the government may dislike some outfits that provide an alternative narrative to its own editorial line but it is imperative for the media to remain free, independent, diverse, and pluralistic.”
Khan is set to submit her full report on her findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2025.